Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

Shooting stars

Posted on June 30 2010 at 2:28:29 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

July (already?) and it’s just starting to get darker earlier. Mars and Saturn are now too low in the twilight to be seen except from a good vantage point with a clear view to the west.

Venus is just visible as soon as the Sun sets but, again, low in the west. Jupiter rises in the wee small hours but will be better in a couple of months. This is an excellent time of year, though, to try and catch the Milky Way. This is our own galaxy and, at this time, we are looking towards its centre.

You need a fairly dark location, as far away from any street lights as possible. Start by looking south (where the Sun is at noon). Look straight up, right over the top of your head. The brightest star you can see is Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, which is the parallelogram of stars just below it.

To the left, you should see another bright star, at the top of a “cross” of stars. This is Deneb and the cross is Cygnus the swan, flying southwards. As your eyes adapt to the darkness, you should find that Cygnus is flying along the hazy lane across the sky that is the Milky Way. It stretches from horizon to horizon and seems to split just above Cygnus, where interstellar dust obscures the view.

I always find it fascinating (gobsmacking) to think that what we are seeing as a misty patch is, in fact, the light from billions of stars, too far away to be seen individually. Try pointing your binoculars at this part of the sky; it will take your breath away!

August is probably the best time to see “shooting stars” or meteors. During the first half of the month, the Earth passes through a trail of debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle (next due in 2110) and this produces a meteor shower that should peak on the 12th but it is worth looking for several days before and after this date.

I would suggest going to satellite watching mode (ie: in a deckchair) but looking more or less straight upwards, using your peripheral vision to keep an eye on the entire sky or as much of it as you can see. You should see a few satellites but also, occasionally, the flash of a meteor somewhere in the sky. They usually appear as a bright streak, lasting less than a second.

So, by the time you have shifted your gaze in the right direction it will be over and you will certainly never have time to point it out to someone else. What you are seeing is a speck of dust, or possibly something the size of a grain of sand, hitting the atmosphere at many thousands of miles per hour and burning up, usually at a height of around fifty miles.

Now and again, a larger piece hits and is slowed by the drag to produce a longer streak, leaving a trail behind it (known as a “train” by astronomers – and yes, they do spend evenings “spotting” them). Sometimes these longer ones can disappear over the horizon or behind a building etc, giving the impression that a meteorite has struck somewhere near, but this is very unlikely.

I’m afraid that meteors can be rather infrequent but, like buses, three will then come along at once. So, you may have to spend quite a while observing but it can be a pleasant way of spending a warm August evening, preferably with friends, wherever in the world you may be. You just need a clear view – but remember, the moment you take your eye off the sky is just when the biggest meteor will strike!

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