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Meteor Shower to Drench the Dark

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Scores of Orange County residents this weekend will be staying up late--staring transfixed into space.

The occasion is the annual sky spectacle called the Perseid Meteor Shower. Rapid streaks of light--popularly but incorrectly called “shooting stars"--will be flashing across the evening skies tonight and will continue through early Tuesday morning.

“It’s a beautiful sight,” said Patrick So, an astronomy lecturer at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. “It’s definitely worth watching.”

More meteors can be seen with the naked eye this weekend than at any other time of the year, and this year’s show will even be better than usual because the crescent moon this weekend sets early in the evening. That makes the sky darker and the meteor shower more visible.

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“This is a meteor shower that gets its name because it appears to come from the constellation Perseus,” said Robert M. Gill, a physicist and administrator at Cal State Fullerton. “Actually, the Earth is moving through a cloud of material (in outer space)--the remnant of a comet. The small particles left by the comet burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing a kind of flash. Typically these particles that burn up are as small as a grain of sand.”

Gill, a past president of the Orange County Astronomers, said scores of members of that private club will be out watching the skies this weekend. “The meteor showers are very spectacular,” he said.

According to Astronomy magazine, the best views of the meteors are after midnight each night this weekend. The magazine predicts that the peak meteor action will take place midnight Monday night and continue into early Tuesday morning. The magazine said viewers in rural areas can see up to 80 meteors an hour shortly after midnight Monday.

Every year around Aug. 12, the Earth passes through the trail of dusty debris left in the heavens by the ancient comet Swift-Tuttle. As the dust from that old comet passes into the Earth’s atmosphere, it ignites into a fiery burn. Simultaneously, the air around the cosmic particles becomes ionized during the particles’ rapid fall. The streaks of light in the skies are a combination of the glowing, ionized air channels and the fiery particles hurtling to Earth.

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All combine for a fantastic show.

“It’s a spectacle,” Gill said. “It’s one of the wonders of the universe. I personally find watching the meteor showers very relaxing and very soothing.”

Because the Perseid Meteor Shower is a yearly event, it does not create a huge stir in the scientific community. But astronomers nonetheless find it a challenge to log the number and approximate size of the meteors as they hurtle toward Earth.

Amateur sky watchers also say they enjoy the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. Randall Black, a spokesman for UC Irvine, is also an amateur astronomer. He has seen Perseid Meteor Showers in previous years, and he is a consummate fan.

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“It’s like a free fireworks display,” Black said. “These meteors are created by just particles of dust, but they leave huge trails. And during the (Perseid) showers, there are a great number of meteors coming in.

“Sometimes the meteors seem to explode. Sometimes they split into two fragments. Sometimes you’ll see one that seems to have a greenish color. Watching them, in the quiet of the night, is really an experience.”

UCI has no planned viewing activity for students during this weekend’s meteor showers. Black noted that seeing meteors at night is difficult in well-lighted, urban areas such as at UCI. Cal State Fullerton similarly has no on-campus activities for meteor-watching this weekend. But individual students and faculty members at both campuses are expected to drive to desert and mountain areas, where artificial lights are dimmer and the viewing better.

The Orange County Astronomers, which has about 600 members, is holding a meeting tonight at the club’s private preserve near Anza, in Riverside County.

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“We believe we’re the biggest astronomy club in the country, and we have our own 20-acre site there in Riverside County,” said John R. Sanford of Costa Mesa, a past president of the group. “It’s a great place to view meteors and the stars. It’s sort of like high desert out there. The elevation of our site is 4,300 feet.”

Sanford said that club members would be watching the Perseid showers late tonight. Some members will stay through Sunday night to watch the meteors as they increase in frequency, Sanford said.

Jack Lewis, a graphic artist and amateur astronomer at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, said that stargazers who travel to the mountains or deserts will be rewarded for the effort.

“It’s very hard to see the meteors in the city,” Lewis said. “You just get this gray sky in the city. It’s really a shame that people in the city don’t see more of the stars. I think if city people saw more of the stars, they’d have a different attitude about life.”

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Unlike some astronomical events, the meteor shower will extend across the night sky, but the meteors will all appear to be coming from one area of the northeastern sky, according to Astronomy magazine. That location, called the “radiant point,” is near the constellation Perseus.

Perseus is a cluster of bright stars within the Milky Way. The brightest star in Perseus is Mirfak, derived from the Arabic word for elbow. Mirfak is the right elbow of the mythical Greek warrior Perseus.

In mythology, Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae. Perseus achieved fame by cutting off the head of Medusa, whose hair consisted of serpents. Ancient astronomers imagined that the stars forming the constellation Perseus showed him with his sword in his right hand and the severed head of Medusa in his left.

Gill, of Cal State Fullerton, said the view of the constellation and the streaking meteors as they radiate from the constellation is a sight not to be missed. “Just sit back,” he said, “and relax and look at the sky.”

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Summer Light Show

Streaks of light will fill the midnight skies over Orange County this weekend, when one of the year’s biggest meteor showers coincides with moonless evenings to make for great viewing. The Perseid Meteor Shower takes its name from the constellation Perseus, because its meteors appear to come from a radiant point above the star pattern. The bursts of light are created when bits of matter burn up in the earth’s thick atmosphere. Friction heats the meteor particles, making them glow and trail hot gases, before they disintergrate. Crossing Paths The Perseid shower occurs when Earth passes through a ring of comet dust. It has no dangerous rocks, but some dust grains fall through the air, making meteors. Comet Swift-Tuttle’s passage have left behind small particles. The comet was last seen in the 1800s, and it’s unknown when the comet will return. Sky-Watching Tips When: Tonight through Monday night. Best on last two nights. Time: After midnight. Few meteors will appear before then. Place: Anyplace. But away from city lights, 50 meteors an hour may be spotted. Viewing Tips: Look overhead, northeasterly. Binoculars or telescopes limit view; don’t use. Next Shower: The large Geminids shower will occur Dec. 14. Source: Griffith Observatory; Collier’s Encyclopedia; Astronomy Magazine


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