Meteor Showers: Mother Nature's Fireworks

Don't miss the summer season's spectacular meteor showers.

| July/August 1979

Meteors are commonly called shooting stars, but as you know, the cosmic objects aren't really stars at all. Instead, they're particles of space dust and rock that give off intense bursts of light (and occasionally sound) as they burn up in the higher reaches of our atmosphere.

Although meteors enter the earth's protective covering of air all the time (and a sharp-eyed observer can sight up to 10 "falling phenomena" an hour on almost any dark, clear night), the best astral displays occur when Spaceship Earth passes through a long trail of comet debris or a denser-than-usual dust cloud. The amazing meteor showers that occur at such times can actually fill the entire sky.

As a matter of fact, on November 12, 1833 shooting stars sprayed over America's skies like a heavy blizzard of luminescent snowflakes at a rate of 35,000 per hour! The stellar display was so astounding that—as one contemporary writer put it—"the population was impressed to the point of reform." Such superstar showers don't happen all that often, though, and are extremely difficult to predict.

Luckily, there are a few "regular" sky shows, and two of the best-known annual astral performances take place every July and August. If you go stargazing after midnight during either of those two showers—and if the sky isn't blotted out by clouds—you can expect to see between 30 and 50 meteors an hour!

It Depends on Your Point of View

"Hold on a minute!" you may exclaim. "Does space dust punch a time clock? How come meteors don't fall before midnight?" Well, of course some sky stones do drop before the stroke of twelve (and during the day as well). However, because of the direction of the earth's rotation you'll see more meteors after midnight than before. Why? Because an observer of the evening sky looks mainly at that part of space our planet is hurtling away from, while on the other hand a predawn sky-watcher sees the section of sky we're all heading toward.

Let me put it this way: Suppose that you're driving a car in a snowstorm. If you face the back window, you'll observe very few snowflakes landing on the glass. But when you look ahead, you see scads of the white flecks.

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