Astronomy Column

Have you enjoyed all the festivities and specials on television related to the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing? The event at Resaca de la Palma and the Cristina Torres Memorial Observatory on July 20th was well attended. The groups that sponsored the event expect to be able to share more space excitement during the coming months.

The gifts for us to enjoy in the night sky are numerous and often obscured by too much light, weather-related clouds, or blowing dust. One of the exciting gifts will be occurring for the next several days. The Delta Aquarids Meteor shower will be the source of numerous “falling stars” as the uninitiated call meteors streaking across the sky.

These blazing bits of rock are debris entering Earth’s atmosphere that heats up the area around it through friction, leaving a trail of glowing light. Once the particle or chunk lands on the planet it is called a meteorite. The definitions are a bit confusing; don’t let that stop you from heading out to look for some.

Meteor showers occur when Earth’s orbit carries us into the dusty debris each year that a given comet leaves behind on its millions of miles long orbital path from the distant place of origin beyond the orbit of Pluto called the Oort Cloud. Most comets manage to swing around the Sun and head back from where they came, although occasionally one will slam into a planet such as Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 did in July of 1994.

A meteor shower is a marvelous thing to see and the peak night of the shower the Moon will be a small sliver, which means if the clouds and dust and light pollution are minimal, we should be able to see some splendid flashes skating across the sky.

The best way to see the most meteors is to join a group of friends or family and sit outside in the late evening and scan the skies from east across the south. The meteors seem to originate from the constellation Aquarius that rises about nightfall, rising into the middle of the sky by after midnight.

The best time to “catch a falling star” will be when this constellation is nearer the meridian, around 4:00 a.m. Look due south for the bright star Fomalhaut for the region the meteors will seem to be emerging and streaking across the sky.

If the weather doesn’t cooperate for this one, another meteor shower will occur in mid-August. In addition, there are several other meteor showers occurring which means the chances are extremely good that you will spot something lovely.

The Alpha Capricornids and the Piscis Austrinids will be passing into our atmosphere this month as well. Look south for the best possibility of seeing them. How does a meteor watching party sound?

As a bonus, after a meteor shower it is possible to retrieve micrometeorites from your roof if you place a bucket beneath the gutter spout and capture the run-off water from the roof. Use a strong magnet that you put in a waterproof plastic bag, swish it in the debris at the bottom of the bucket, and chances are good you have actually caught yourself a bit of space debris because some meteors are iron, although others are stony.

If a meteor shower doesn’t impress you, perhaps the international space station will be passing overhead; check out the NASA website for flyover times and dates.

Until next week, do let some stars get in your eyes.