Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
In John Denver's wonderful song "Rocky Mountain High," he says he's "seen it raining fire in the sky." I always like to think he was singing about the annual August Perseid meteor shower when you can, indeed, see it raining fire in the sky!
I've made it a point to try and watch the Perseid meteor shower every August since 1972, and I wish I had known about it before then. Of course, some years, it's been cloudy or raining, and some years, like last year, the full moon gets in the way and overpowers the meteor light show. Some years, I've thrown all of my meteor-watching gear in the back of my car and zoomed off to find clear skies hundreds of miles away.
Well, this year should be an outstanding year for watching the Perseid meteor shower, weather permitting, because on the morning of the shower's peak, Aug. 12, the moon will be in its new phase and won't be seen at all. A single observer should be able to see about 60 or so meteors per hour during the peak.
The Perseid meteor shower has been observed since at least Aug. 10, 258 AD, when the Romans martyred a Christian deacon named Laurentius on a hot gridiron. That night, as Laurnetius' family and friends carried away his body, they noticed a number of bright streaks falling through the sky and marveled at the miracle, believing the streaks were the fiery tears of Laurentius falling from heaven. For centuries after that August night, people all over the world have continued to marvel at the sight of St. Lawrence's tears every August.
We now know the streaks of light are caused by tiny bits of space dust shed by a comet named Swift-Tuttle as they enter the Earth's atmosphere at high speed and burn up as meteors about 60 miles above the Earth's surface. The August meteors seem to fan out from a point in the northeastern sky within our constellation Perseus, so the meteor shower is named the Perseid meteor shower.
The nights of peak activity are Aug. 11 and 12, but some Perseid meteors can be seen for about a week on either side of that date. You will always see the most meteors between midnight and dawn because the Earth is then facing the direction the meteors are coming from.
So, grab that comfy recliner and sleeping bag, some insect repellant and a Thermos of your favorite hot beverage and watch the sky for St. Lawrence's tears. You never know when the next big one will flash into view!
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines.