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This weekend (tonight into early Saturday and Saturday into Sunday, August 11-12 and August 12-13) will be the peak nights of the 2017 Perseid meteor shower.

The Perseids get their name because they appear to come from the constellation Perseus. Perseus is a mythological Greek hero. He beheaded the Gorgon Medusa and saved Andromeda from a sea monster Cetus. Perseus was the son of the mortal Danaë and the god Zeus. In the night sky, constellations named after other ancient Greek legends surround Perseus, including Andromeda to the west and Cassiopeia to the north.

In 1866, after the perihelion passage of the Swift-Tuttle comet in 1862, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli discovered the link between meteor showers and comets. A meteor shower is the result of an interaction between a planet, such as Earth, and streams of debris from a comet.

In John Denver’s song “Rocky Mountain High”, he alludes to watching the Perseid meteor shower in the mountains near Aspen, Colorado – “I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.”

A much stranger reference is the Catholic religion’s reference to the Perseids as the “tears of Saint Lawrence.” The belief was that his tears returned to Earth once a year on August 10 which is the canonical date of that saint’s martyrdom in 258 AD. Saint Lawrence was said to have been burned alive on a gridiron. From that came the origin of the Mediterranean folk legend that the shooting stars are the sparks of that fire. Furthermore, it was believed that during the night of August 9–10, the cooled embers of that fire appear in the ground under plants, and are known as the “coal of Saint Lawrence.” I checked around my garden Wednesday night. No coals.

This weekend you can watch from late evening until dawn. The meteor showers have been “falling” for several weeks, but this weekend should be the peak. The greatest number of meteors typically fall in the hours before dawn. In a remote location and on a “moonless” night, you might see 50+ meteors per hour. For 2017, there will be a bright waning gibbous moon after midnight. And I will be in Northern New jersey, not far from New York City, which will make viewing more difficult. But I still should be able to see those bright enough to overcome the city and moonlit glare.  This year they may be a “Perseid outburst” with 200 meteors per hour at the peak.

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Last night’s full moon is one dubbed “supermoon” which is fun but unfortunately it coincides with the annual Perseid meteor shower. They peak around August 11-13 and that just-past-full supermoon’s light will overwhelm the shooting stars.

I’ll still look up tonight and the next few nights for the Perseids. They occur every August when Earth passes through the stream of cosmic dust and bits left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

If viewing conditions are optimal, you can see lots of meteors in the course of an hour. This year, maybe just a few of the brightest fireballs.

My best view was in the woods of Maine years ago with my very young sons. That experience as a kid makes “wonderful” really something that is full of wonder. Still works on me after a lot of years.

perseid-map

I start looking after sunset, when the moon is still low, or just before sunrise, when the moon has shifted over to the west.

Some people recommend that you stand in a “moonshadow” – a place where the moon is hidden from your sight. (Not required, but feel free to hum the Cat Stevens song while you watch.)

I’ll be too close to city lights for optimal viewing.

If you want to add some technology, you can check this year’s Perseid forecast from NASA or go online and watch the meteors online (at Slooh) starting at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday. They have a nice view from the Institute of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands. That sounds like a nice place to lie back on the beach and watch.

We will have more meteor opportunities with the Orionids in October or the Leonids in November. As much as I love our Moon, it won’t get as much in the way for those dates.

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Every end is also a beginning. First snow of the season.  Not enough to start the snowblower, but enough to start a fire. If you have to make shavings to start the fire, you may as well whittle something useful, then have a sip and do some #readingbravely in the snow. I’m the first human here.  Today. Sunset before a snowstorm.

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