Seeing stars

2010 is optimal for Israelis viewing the Perseids meteor shower, typically the most reliably impressive of the year. It’s pretty, and it’s a reason for a party

By SHIRA TEGER
August 6, 2010 16:26
meteor shower [file]

Meteor Shower311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

If you’d like to swing on a star, or carry moonbeams home in a jar, you’re better off trying your luck away from the city, where it’s dark.

And if you head out during the upcoming Perseids meteor shower, it might be a little easier.

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Actually, that probably won’t work. Every 130 years, the Swift-Tuttle comet orbits the sun, and it leaves behind quite the dust cloud, explains David Polishook, an astronomer at Tel Aviv University’s Wise Observatory.

As the earth orbits the sun, it passes through that dust cloud every August, and it takes a few days to get through the whole cloud. When the planet is in the center of the cloud, that is when the Perseids meteor shower is at its peak and is most visible – and most beautiful.

Still, you won’t be able to catch any of the meteors (sometimes referred to by the misnomer shooting stars), as they burn up when they enter the earth’s atmosphere. Plus, the tiny dust particles only measure 1 mm. to 1 cm. in diameter.

Though they move at a rate of 70 km. per second, they have no chance of hitting earth and there is nothing to be scared about, assures Dr. Igal Pat-El, chairman of the Israeli Astronomical Association.

As the dust particles burn up, streaks of light are visible from earth, explains Polishook. However, the streaks of light are not actually the burning particles: They are too small to see from such a distance and they burn way too quickly. The streaks are an effect of the atmosphere heating up as a result of the burning particles. Much like in a fluorescent light bulb, the atmospheric gas molecules heat up and emit light.



The Perseids shower is so called because it appears to emanate from the constellation Perseus, which was recorded by Egyptian astrologer Ptolemy in the second century. Pat-El mentions that others refer to the August meteor shower as the Tears of Saint Lawrence, as it occurs in August around the time Saint Lawrence is traditionally believed to have been martyred by the Romans.

No matter what it is called, the shower is typically the most reliably impressive of the year.

Other annual meteor showers include the Leonids in November and the Geminids in December. They vary in the quantity and size of meteors, and the density.

For instance, the Leonids can contain meteors of up to 9 mm. in diameter and can come down in an intense storm of even 3,000 meteors per hour, though a normal rate is about 20 per hour.

DURING ITS peak, the Perseids shower features one or two meteors per minute, or about 100-120 per hour. The Geminids shower features a similar rate. According to Polishook, in years when the dust cloud is especially thick, the Perseids rate can increase to up to one meteor per second, as happened in 1998.

Not every year is ideal for observing the Perseids meteor shower. For one thing, it depends when the peak takes place: It can be during the day or at night. When it is during the day, that means that viewing is only possible after the peak, once it’s dark.

Either way, visibility is typically best from the Northern Hemisphere. In addition, observation is affected by the lunar cycle. During a full moon, the sky is too illuminated to allow for good observation.

Luckily for Israelis, 2010 is optimal for local viewing.
The peak falls on August 13, from about 2 a.m. to 3 a.m.
And there is a new moon on August 11, so the sky will be very dark.

To enable people to get a good look at the sky, both Mitzpe Ramon and Timna Park will shut off their lights and organize events for the occasion. At Timna, near Eilat, the event is being conducted in conjunction with the Israeli Astronomical Association. Telescopes will be brought out, and lectures will be given – and broadcast on large screens.

“It’s pretty, and it’s a reason for a party,” says Pat-El.
“People want to see the stars, so we’re taking them out.”

The festivities begin around 6 p.m. on August 12 and include viewing the clustering of Venus, Mars and Saturn; lectures on meteor showers, summer stars, moons, asteroids and comets; and a chance to watch the Perseids meteor shower. There is even organized transportation from the center of the country and lodging available.

Mitzpe Ramon is hosting the public in a massive joint function of the Har Hanegev Field School, the Nature and Parks Authority, Keren Bracha and the Mitzpe Ramon Municipality. The town has an advantage over Timna – its height. People are invited to come for the whole weekend: The stadium will be open for 2,500 people to set up camp, and food and bathrooms will be available there. Plus, all of Mitzpe’s normal tourism will be active, including Nature and Parks Authority hikes and bike rides.

Concerts will go on non-stop, including performances by Yermi Kaplan and Dana Berger. Of course, the focus of the weekend’s activities will be the meteor shower. There will be 20 high-powered telescopes set out and lectures on astronomy will be given. Almost everything is free of charge.

“After a few years with bad [viewing] conditions, we’re taking advantage of the good conditions,” says the head of Mitzpe Ramon’s tourism department, Dina Dayan.

While the desert is an ideal viewing location, the meteor shower can be seen from anywhere dark. An advantage to something like a meteor shower is that no special viewing equipment is necessary: just something to lie back on and a bit of patience.

Polishook points out that the “rain of meteors,” as he jokingly calls it, covers a large portion of the sky, and using a telescope will actually make the experience less impressive since it requires you to focus on a single area.

You never know what will happen when you are out looking at and wishing upon stars. In 2004, astronomer David Polishook was serving as a guide at a Mitzpe Ramon star-gazing event. He met a girl there, they gazed up at the stars, and now the two are married.

More information and registration for the event at Timna is available on the Israeli Astronomical Association Web site, www.astronomy.org.il, and information on the event at Mitzpe Ramon is available on http://banner.iconinteractive.co.il/mitzpe_ramon/minisite.html or by calling (08) 658-8691.


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