CLOSE

The Best Meteor Shower of the Year Starts Wednesday Night

Some 100 meteors an hour will blaze across the sky tomorrow night—the Perseids are back for their annual visit. While they've been visible since late July and will continue to be through late August, the annual peak of the show begins late tomorrow night, August 12, and will be at its most spectacular in the early morning hours of August 13. 

Named after the constellation Perseus, where the meteors appear to originate, the Perseids are actually the tail of dust, ice, gas, and gravel—much of it more than 1000 years old—following the Swift-Tuttle comet, which orbits the Sun every 133 years. As the Earth moves through Swift-Tuttle's vast debris field on its own orbit, bits of this debris smash into the Earth's atmosphere at 140,000 mph, disintegrating in dramatic streaks of light.

The constellation Perseus—named after the mythological Greek warrior who beheaded Medusa, among other legendary exploits—rises in the northeastern sky around 10 p.m. local time. The show begins on August 12 soon after and continues through the early morning of August 13, peaking around 4 a.m. The American Meteor Society has a nice guide to watching this year's show. (Pro tip: bring a reclining lawn chair.)  

It should be a fantastic display this year thanks to dark skies. In 2014 the shower peaked during a so-called Super Moon, whose reflected sunlight flooded the sky, limiting how many meteors could be seen. But this year the peak of the shower—when the Earth moves through the densest band of debris—arrives right before the new moon, meaning the skies will be optimally dark. If you're in a city, light pollution will interfere with the show. In a rural area you'll be able to see three to ten times as many meteors—and perhaps spot the Milky Way in an edge-on view of our galaxy, witnessed from our location in the lonely boondocks of a spiral arm far from the galactic center:

To create this image, three cameras took continuous time-lapse pictures on the platform of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, located in Chile, during the nights of 12–13 and 13–14 August 2010. Image credit: European Southern Observatory, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama will host a live Ustream broadcast from 10 p.m. EDT to 2 a.m. EDT highlighting the science behind the meteor shower and NASA research related to meteors and comets. During the broadcast, you can tweet questions to @NASA_Marshall using #askNASA.

And if you're anywhere near the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center on Wallops Island, VA, watch the show with NASA educators on nearby Assateague Island. After an astronomy 101 presentation, everyone will decamp for the great outdoors for night sky observations through telescopes and binoculars beginning at 8:45 p.m. EST.

There are countless other viewing events going on across the country. Find a local astronomy group or observatory near you—or simply grab some binoculars. 

NASA created a composite image five years ago—the last time we had dark skies for the Perseids—of the skies above the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.: 

A composite of more than 100 individual meteor images. The linear streaks are meteors, most of them Perseids; the dotted arcs are stars; and the brightest arc on the left side is the moon. Image credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO

By the way, Swift-Tuttle will make its next closest approach to Earth on August 5, 2126. While in the past there had been some fear that the comet could smash into Earth at some point, recalculations have put us in the clear—at least until the fifth millennium CE. People alive then should keep an eye on the skies around September 15, 4479.

Original image
arrow
Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
Original image

A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

Original image
Richard Bouhet // Getty
arrow
science
4 Expert Tips on How to Get the Most Out of August's Total Solar Eclipse
Original image
Richard Bouhet // Getty

As you might have heard, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the U.S. on August 21. It’s the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast event since June 8, 1918, when eclipse coverage pushed World War I off the front page of national newspapers. Americans are just as excited today: Thousands are hitting the road to stake out prime spots for watching the last cross-country total solar eclipse until 2045. We’ve asked experts for tips on getting the most out of this celestial spectacle.

1. DON’T FRY YOUR EYES—OR BREAK THE BANK

To see the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need eclipse glasses because—surprise!—staring directly at the sun for even a minute or two will permanently damage your retinas. Make sure the glasses you buy meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standards. As eclipse frenzy nears its peak, shady retailers are selling knock-off glasses that will not adequately protect your eyes. The American Astronomical Society keeps a list of reputable vendors, but as a rule, if you can see anything other than the sun through your glasses, they might be bogus. There’s no need to splurge, however: You can order safe paper specs in bulk for as little as 90 cents each. In a pinch, you and your friends can take turns watching the partial phases through a shared pair of glasses. As eclipse chaser and author Kate Russo points out, “you only need to view occasionally—no need to sit and stare with them on the whole time.”

2. DON’T DIY YOUR EYE PROTECTION

There are plenty of urban legends about “alternative” ways to protect your eyes while watching a solar eclipse: smoked glass, CDs, several pairs of sunglasses stacked on top of each other. None works. If you’re feeling crafty, or don’t have a pair of safe eclipse glasses, you can use a pinhole projector to indirectly watch the eclipse. NASA produced a how-to video to walk you through it.

3. GET TO THE PATH OF TOTALITY

Bryan Brewer, who published a guidebook for solar eclipses, tells Mental Floss the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse is “like the difference between standing right outside the arena and being inside watching the game.”

During totality, observers can take off their glasses and look up at the blocked-out sun—and around at their eerily twilit surroundings. Kate Russo’s advice: Don’t just stare at the sun. “You need to make sure you look above you, and around you as well so you can notice the changes that are happening,” she says. For a brief moment, stars will appear next to the sun and animals will begin their nighttime routines. Once you’ve taken in the scenery, you can use a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the tendrils of flame that make up the sun’s corona.

Only a 70-mile-wide band of the country stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the total eclipse. Rooms in the path of totality are reportedly going for as much as $1000 a night, and news outlets across the country have raised the specter of traffic armageddon. But if you can find a ride and a room, you'll be in good shape for witnessing the spectacle.

4. PRESERVE YOUR NIGHT VISION

Your eyes need half an hour to fully adjust to darkness, but the total eclipse will last less than three minutes. If you’ve just been staring at the sun through the partial phases of the eclipse, your view of the corona during totality will be obscured by lousy night vision and annoying green afterimages. Eclipse chaser James McClean—who has trekked from Svalbard to Java to watch the moon blot out the sun—made this rookie mistake during one of his early eclipse sightings in Egypt in 2006. After watching the partial phases, with stray beams of sunlight reflecting into his eyes from the glittering sand and sea, McClean was snowblind throughout the totality.

Now he swears by a new method: blindfolding himself throughout the first phases of the eclipse to maximize his experience of the totality. He says he doesn’t mind “skipping the previews if it means getting a better view of the film.” Afterward, he pops on some eye protection to see the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon pulls away from the sun. If you do blindfold yourself, just remember to set an alarm for the time when the total eclipse begins so you don’t miss its cross-country journey. You'll have to wait 28 years for your next chance.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios