1 Sep 2012

Potten End Newsletter Article 4

This article originally appeared in the Potten End Newsletter, September 2012.

Potten End Skies

From Meteorology to Meteors and Beyond!

A slight change of course in this issue takes us from meteorology to meteors and beyond.
We’re lucky to have relatively dark skies in Potten End. Free from the pollution of excessive lights, the skies are dark enough to view lots of interesting celestial objects that town and city dwellers will sadly miss.

Meteors or shooting stars are not as rare as you might imagine. Spend half an hour looking up at a clear night sky and you’ll often see a couple in the corner of your eye. You have to be lucky to see them directly as they pass very rapidly. It’s a little late to see the Perseid meteor shower that peaks every year between the 9th and 14th of August but this year the skies were slightly overcast during the critical time so you haven’t missed much. In perfect conditions the Perseid meteor shower can be quite spectacular as it produces over 100 visible meteors an hour with colours ranging from pale yellow to orange and blue.

Meteors are caused by small particles of debris (ranging from dust to the size of a small pebble) burning up in the atmosphere between 75km and 100km above the Earth leaving a visible trail of hot gases and melted meteoroid particles. The Perseid meteor shower is caused by dust particles from the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet entering Earth’s atmosphere at around 132,000 miles per second.
Regular meteor showers are named after the area in the sky from which they appear to originate. The Perseid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation in the North East named after the Greek hero Perseus, and have been regularly observed for at least 2,000 years with the first written observations made in 36 AD in the Far East.

The next meteor showers to look out for are:
  • the Orionids from October 20th to the 24th which should produce about 20 pale yellow and blue meteors an hour.
  • the Leonids from November 17th to the 18th which should produce about 40 pale yellow and blue meteors an hour.
  • the Geminids from December 13th to the 14th which should produce about 60 multi-coloured meteors an hour.
September has a few interesting celestial events. The equinox (when night and day time are equal) occurs on 22nd September. The days start getting shorter from that point. The full moon closest to the equinox is called the Harvest Moon and that happens on September 30th. It’s called the Harvest Moon because the light from the full moon allowed farmers to work longer hours in the fields in the autumn.

The International Space Station (ISS) will be visible towards the end of September. You can hardly miss it as it is extremely bright and fast moving – quite different to a high flying jet plane or a satellite – but you’ll have to be up and about very early in the morning to see it.

I’m hoping for better weather and clearer night skies in the weeks ahead, but all long range forecasts continue to indicate unsettled weather for the foreseeable future. However it’s worth taking a long look at the night sky whenever you get the time. There’s always a chance of seeing something truly awe-inspiring.

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet”
Professor Stephen Hawking,
London Paralympic Opening Ceremony 2012.