- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

George Gliba remembers the moment he fell in love with astronomy. It was around 1960, and he was on a camping trip with friends. He saw a fireball a particularly bright meteor light up the sky and was naturally interested.

"One of the older boys said it meant somebody just died," Mr. Gliba recalls. "That cooked up my interest. I knew that wasn't true, but I did get intrigued by it. That kind of launched me into a lifelong interest in astronomy."

The next year, Mr. Gliba saw his first Perseid meteor shower, and every mid-August since then, his routine has been the same. Next month, the Greenbelt resident and data archivist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt will make it 32 years in a row when he drags his lawn chair outside to see the Perseids.

He'll have company all over the area. Experienced astronomers, professional and amateur, are familiar with the Perseids an annual meteor shower that appears to spring out of the constellation Perseus, giving it its name. But when the Perseids reach their peak, some time early in the morning on Aug. 12, they probably will be watched by more than just astronomy buffs.

After all, as Jim O'Leary, director of the Davis Planetarium at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore says, "The Perseids are meant for everybody. You don't need a telescope or binoculars. You don't need to know where the moon is, where the planets are. All you need is a sleeping bag or lawn chair and a full view of the sky."


Meteoroids tiny pieces of space debris are floating through space all the time. When they enter Earth's atmosphere and begin to burn up or vaporize, they become meteors. Meteors are constantly falling to Earth. Mr. O'Leary says scientists estimate that as many as 100 tons of meteoroids penetrate Earth's atmosphere every day. Because the vast majority of them are tiny pebble-size or even smaller they vaporize in the outer atmosphere and fall to Earth as space dust so fine people don't even notice it. Occasionally, larger meteoroids survive their entry into Earth's atmosphere and become meteorites, falling to Earth intact.

Melissa Jan, observatory coordinator for the Maryland Science Center, says people often are surprised to hear that meteors can be as small as a grain of sand, but she says the incredible friction caused by their descent through the atmosphere is the reason they are so visible.

"These meteors are falling upward of 70,000 miles an hour," she says. "I tell kids who visit here to rub their hands together quickly and they can feel them warm up. Now imagine something moving 70,000 miles an hour and the heat that will produce."

People can't see meteors during the daytime, but they sometimes see them at night as "shooting stars" or "falling stars" if they're looking up at the right moment.

Every so often, though, Earth passes through a meteor shower, and instead of two or three meteors falling to Earth in an hour's time, people can see 50 to 100 meteors in an hour.

Meteor showers like the Perseids are created by comets, which leave trails of dust, gas and other space debris floating behind as they orbit the sun. The trails stay there in space because there is no gravity or atmosphere or anything else to disperse them. Every year at the same time, Earth plows through those trails, creating the dazzling natural fireworks of meteor showers.

The Perseids may be named after the constellation Perseus, but they actually are the work of comet Swift-Tuttle, named after the two American scientists who discovered it in 1862. Swift-Tuttle came back in 1992 but isn't expected to return again until around 2126. The Earth passes through Swift-Tuttle's trail every year in August, and the effects of the Perseids can be as mesmerizing for skywatchers as any Fourth of July fireworks show on the National Mall.

Mr. O'Leary recalls going to Downs Memorial Park in Pasadena, Md., one year to see the Perseids. The park was opened during the night just to accommodate skywatchers, and Mr. O'Leary says he didn't know how many people were there until the first spectacular meteor fell.

"You could hear people all around the park oohing and aahing," he says with a chuckle. "It was 3:30 in the morning, and I thought to myself, 'Wow, I'm definitely not alone out here.'"

The Perseids start between July 17 and 24 and will be visible through most of August in the northeastern sky. The peak range will be Aug. 11 through 13, with the morning of Aug. 12 expected to be the heaviest, according to local astronomers.

Mr. O'Leary says any of the three nights should provide an entertaining show. "People shouldn't think if they miss a particular night that's it," he says. "There will be a couple of nights around the 12th that should be good viewing."

The Perseids are not the only major annual meteor shower. The Leonids (named for the constellation Leo) come in November every year, and the Geminids (named after the constellation Gemini) come in January. The Perseids, though, are special for two reasons, says Sean O'Brien, program manager for the Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum in the District.

"First, the output of meteor shower is pretty reliable," he says, "and it's at a high-enough level to be interesting for someone looking at a meteor shower for the first time. It's reliable year to year. Some years are better than others, obviously, because of clouds or the moon phase or whatever, but it's a pretty predictable show.

"And the other reason is the time of year. The other good [meteor showers] are in the colder months, and getting somebody out in the middle of the night at that time of year might be hard. You've got to be dedicated to stay out and watch. But the weather around here for the Perseids as long as you put on bug spray, you can step out in shorts, or maybe put on a pair of jeans, and sit on your lawn chair and enjoy."

Mr. O'Brien notes that the moon phases will cooperate for Perseids fans this year because the moon will be barely visible during the peak nights of Aug. 11 through 13.

The key to seeing a good Perseids show is darkness, which is hard to come by in and near the District. Mr. O'Brien says the farther away from Washington people can go, the more they'll see.

Mr. Gliba recommends a place like Virginia's Skyline Drive, noting that the Big Meadows Lodge area has been a popular place for stargazers in the past.

Mr. O'Brien cautions skywatchers to stay away from trees as much as possible because they need to see as much of the sky as they can.

"It sounds like a common-sense thing, but sometimes people are in such a hurry to find a dark spot like a forest that they forget the trees will block out the sky as much as the light," he says.


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