The summer usually brings a raft of new science-fiction movies, and this year is no exception. In case you are Seeking a Friend for the End of the World or at least a friend to join you in seeing the current movie with that title you should know that summer also brings the start of the meteor shower season.
Meteors are smaller, less menacing rocks than the asteroids like the one featured in the Steve Carell and Keira Knightley movie. Instead of looking at doom, we can look up in the air to see a natural fireworks display as these pebble-size rocks enter our Earths atmosphere at a speed of tens of miles per second and burn up due to frictional heating more than 50 miles above us.
While the movie stars shoot films, our shooting stars start their season on Aug. 11 with the Perseid meteor shower. On that Saturday, our orbit around the sun intersects the orbit of a broken-up comet, a sort of cousin of the killer asteroids depicted on film. Up to 90 meteors per hour can be seen in a dark, clear sky, with about half that rate the night before and after.
The moon will be at third quarter, rising next to Jupiter about midnight, and could interfere by providing a little natural light pollution. Besides a dark sky, all you need is a chair or blanket these are naked-eye phenomena.
Although we understand the nature of meteors, we only figured it out relatively recently. Thomas Jefferson did not believe that rocks could fall from the heavens. It would take the 1833 Leonids meteor shower, with thousands of shooting stars per hour, for people to notice that they radiated from a specific direction in space the constellation Leo, hence the shower name and to associate them with outer space. Our Perseid shower radiates from the constellation Perseus.
The next good shower is in the fall the Orionids, on Oct. 20 (another Saturday). The Leonids on Nov. 16 and Geminids on Dec. 13 round out the shower season for 2012. All of those have more favorable moon phases.
As far as the next killer asteroid, and there could be one, we astronomers are looking for them. So, relax and enjoy both the movie and the shooting stars!
Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: email@example.com. More on this months column: www.upintheair.info.