Dress warmly for ‘shooting star’ show this week
Most people have never seen a “shooting star.”
This week might be the best opportunity to see objects leave a glowing trail from solar system fireworks that are visible from your backyard or sidewalk.
There’s no need to travel beyond your house although you’ll see more if you’re in the dark suburbs. And the good news is you don’t need binoculars or a telescope.
Usually comets loop around the solar system leaving a trail of comet dust and debris. Some of these form thick areas of debris and once a year the Earth, on which we live, plows through that celestial debris causing our atmosphere to heat and ignite the pieces resulting in fireworks above us that lasts a few seconds.
Amazingly, the debris in a meteor showers consists of particles the size of a grain of sand but, from our viewpoint 60 to 100 miles below, when these pieces ignite they appear white, sometimes yellow and rarely red, green or blue. They are flashes of light lasting a second or two.
Although Thursday night starting about 10 p. m. and lasting for hours into Friday morning is the best time to see the greatest number of these, they are usually visible for several nights before and after Thursday.
This week’s shooting stars are different from the other meteor streams. Known as the Geminids, the stream of debris was a relatively recent find making an appearance over a century ago during the 1860s and not coming from a comet.
A meteor shower is named after a constellation and the bright star of the constellation from which the meteors seem to radiate. In this case, the shower is named after the constellation, Gemini.
What is different in the Gemini shower is it seems to come from a huge boulder located between Mars and Jupiter. The Gemini shower has gotten brighter through the 20th century. The source of the shower is an asteroid known as 3200 Phaeth- on. Pieces of 3200 Phaethon may have broken off over the years and simply floated past us.
To observe the Geminids, wear a heavy coat and hat, bring a blanket, and place a beach chair outside where you can see the nighttime sky. Place your chair facing east and gaze at the sky. Chances are the first time you see a meteor, you’ll be so excited you won’t be sure you saw it.
Sometimes the flashes of light come alone and other times several at a time. Be proud of yourself if you saw a flash of light traveling approximately 36,000 mph and 50 to 100 miles up!
Remember it is only the size of a piece of sand and these burn up and won’t come down to hurt you.
Notice that shooting stars or falling stars have nothing to do with stars.
Once you have seen a piece from a meteor, you’ll never forget it. Next Oct. 20 or 21, you can look for the Orionid Meteor Shower. This is another trail of debris that the Earth plows through.
It is significant because it is debris from Halley’s Comet. That famous comet was last here in 1986 and will return in 2061. When you see the solar system fireworks, you may be seeing a piece of a comet or this week, a piece of an asteroid.
Bundle up and stay warm while looking at pieces as old as the solar system..
Keep in mind that this solar system show will take you back in time, and its free.
Health & Science Dr. Milton Friedman