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.
you head out during the upcoming Perseids meteor shower, it might be a little
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Luckily for Israelis, 2010 is optimal for local
The peak falls on August 13, from about 2 a.m. to 3
And there is a new moon on August 11, so the sky will be very
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
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.
few years with bad [viewing] conditions, we’re taking advantage of the good
conditions,” says the head of Mitzpe Ramon’s tourism department, Dina
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.
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
calling (08) 658-8691.