Understanding Meteor Showers the Pleiades the Perseid and more

When looking up at a clear night sky we wonder at the majesty and beauty of the
stars. Ancient peoples the world over were dazzled by them and even named their gods and heroes after them. Watching a spray of incandescent light streaking across the black horizon or the twinkling of the stars can be more satisfying than any man-made entertainment. In fact, some of the most pleasing and enjoyable night sky watching are provided by star clusters and meteor showers.

Meteor showers are fragments of debris that upon entering the earth’s atmosphere vaporize or burn up. This burning is what causes the bright, beautiful streaking lights that we see from the ground. Meteor showers are associated with the activity of comets in our solar system.

Comets are small planetoid bodies of ice and rock that orbit the sun. Whenever a comet orbits around the Sun it sheds some of its stellar debris, becoming a little bit smaller with each orbit. The ice and rock debris streams from the comet forming a “tail”. The larger, solid pieces of rock debris are called meteors. As the Earth orbits the Sun, its orbit sometimes crosses through the path of the comet’s tail and when that happens the larger pieces of debris sometimes fall away from the tail into the earth’s atmosphere, burning away as bright streaking light as they fall. Thus, the meteor shower. The Perseids showers will be seen best between July and August, peaking around the August 11-13th. They are associated with the Swift-Tuttle comet and are seen in the Northern Hemisphere. They are given the name Perseids because they appear to come from a point within the Perseus constellation.

Showers are usually seen during certain times of the year, every year like clockwork. During August, where I live in the Pacific Northwest, I can always count on being able to catch a series of building showers throughout the month. In the Northern Hemisphere August is a great time for watching meteor showers. What makes August such a wonderful time is the clear summer night sky and lack moonlight during the first part of the month. The moonlight will not be a distraction until near the end of the month when we see a full moon again.

The Pleiades is a star cluster, often known as the Seven Sisters, which are located within the Taurus constellation. They become prominent in the Northern Hemisphere during winter. Their light has a bluish tinge because they are young stars. They have a misty, cloud-like nebulae that envelopes them which contributes to their beauty. The cloud-like material which gives them that nebulous look is a giant cloud of hydrogen gas and stellar dust that the star group is passing through.

Since I was a girl it was a family event each summer in August to go to the beach or just outside the city away from the city lights, spread a large blanket with snacks and lay down and watch the meteor showers and twinkling. It’s a wonderful family event and may even get your kids interested in science! I still do it today.