Jimmy Westlake: Perseid meteors peak this week

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Jimmy Westlake

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 that he was singing about the annual 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, 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 a great year for watching the Perseid meteor shower, weather permitting, because on the morning of the shower's peak, Tuesday, the moon will set around 2 a.m., just as the shower is reaching its peak. A single observer should then be able to see about 60 meteors each hour before dawn.

The Perseid meteor shower has been observed in mid-August every year since at least 258 A.D., when the Romans martyred a Christian deacon named Laurentius on a hot gridiron. That night, as Laurentius' family and friends carried away his body, they noticed a number of bright streaks falling through the sky, and they marveled at the miracle, believing that the streaks were the fiery tears of Laurentius falling from heaven. For centuries after that August night, people all across the world have continued to marvel at the sight of St. Lawrence's tears each summer.

We now know that the streaks of light are caused when tiny bits of space dust, shed by a comet named Swift-Tuttle, enter the Earth's atmosphere at high speed and burn up as meteors about 60 miles high. 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 night of peak activity is Aug. 11 to 12, but some Perseid meteors can be seen for about a week on either side of that date. You always will see the most meteors between midnight and dawn because that's when Earth is facing the direction from which the meteors are coming.

So, grab that comfy recliner and sleeping bag, some insect repellent, 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!

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