“What?” I say.
“Energy,” he says. Same as you. Same as the beetles and crows and coyotes…”
from A Bed of Stars
written and illustrated by Jessica Love
Candlewick Press, 2023
(accessed on YouTube, 8/13/23)
I was eleven years old the year I slept under the stars at Girl Scout camp. After the usual girl-chatter, we arranged ourselves on a soft-enough spot in the grassy area next to a well-worn trail. We pulled our sleeping bags around us and most of the girls fell asleep. But not me. I’m not sure why I felt so wide awake, but I lay on my back watching the stars dot the inky sky.
Then the stars started falling. I was not scared stiff. I knew the Perry Como song, “Catch a Falling Star” (and put it in your pocket. Save it for a rainy day) from a 45-single my dad brought home for us to play on the hi-fi. But still. I had never seen a falling star with my own eyes. I watched about 347 of them before I decided Earth would survive until morning and I fell asleep.
At breakfast, my counselor told me shooting stars are not that uncommon. That’s it. No excitement. No comment. Not even a teaching moment. None of the other girls were able to corroborate the sighting. They had all slept through it.
The Perseid Meteor Shower is an annual event. It peaks around mid August as Earth passes through a cloud of dust particles and debris from a comet known as 109P/Swift-Tuttle.
Some comets travel a predictable path. Comets with solar orbits of less than 200 years are called short-period comets. Halley’s Comet, probably the best known, is visible from Earth every 75-79 years.
Like other comets, the center of 109P/Swift-Tuttle is a combination of icy chunks, frozen gasses, and bits of dust. 109P/Swift-Tuttle’s nucleus is over 16 miles in diameter, about twice the size of the object that some say brought about the demise of the dinosaurs.
As comets travel closer to the sun in their own orbits, some of their gas melts and creates a trail of dust, its visible tail.
As we pass through this space-dust on our own Earthly orbit, the dusty bits collide with our atmosphere. We’re watching their natural disintegration into fiery, colorful streaks as we star-gaze.
Comets are named for the people who discover them. As luck (or science) would have it, both Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle discovered the comet independently in 1862. Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle (The P stands for short -period) orbits the sun about every 133 years. Since its solar orbit is less than 200 years like Halley’s Comet, Swift-Tuttle is also a short-period comet. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, provides photographs of short-period comets here.
The next time Swift-Tuttle, itself, will be visible from Earth is 2125.
Short-period comets live beyond Neptune in an icy swath called the Kuiper Belt which includes the dwarf planet Pluto.
A meteor is a chunk of space ice and can be an asteroid or a comet. It depends on where it originates.
Meteors are often called falling stars. They generally burn up or disintegrate before they reach Earth. If remnants or particles do enter the atmosphere and land on Earth, the resulting rock is called a meteorite.
Comets are icy space-balls that originate beyond Neptune and orbit the sun. Sometimes their frozen gasses, as they warm up in their orbit, form a tail. The gassy tail is what we can see as a comet travels through space.
An asteroid is a chunk of rock that orbits around the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Occasionally one of these chunks is thrown out of its orbit and heads toward Earth. Most of these burn up as they reach Earth’s atmosphere, too.
If you’re lucky enough to live in an area without a lot of light pollution, you know that meteors or shooting stars, are really not that uncommon.
I was grown up before I knew the meteor shower I witnessed at Girl Scout camp that summer of long ago was probably the annual skyshow, The Perseid Meteor Shower.
Like comets, recurring meteor showers are also named. Perseus, a hero of Greek mythology, was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. Perseus succeeded in an impossible task. He defeated the dangerous Gorgon, Medussa, and brought back her head. Perseus was rewarded with a constellation named for him. It is from this constellation that the Perseid meteors originate.
One August several years ago, my daughter and I woke ourselves up around 2 a.m. and went out to the backyard to watch the meteor show. We couldn’t see a thing. I suspect light pollution, but it might have been impatience.
Although its peak occurred about midnight couple of days ago, you can see the show until August 24, 2023, if you’re lucky, patient, and don’t mind losing a little sleep to quench your curiosity.
City lights and cloudy skies encourage me to wait till next year.
I just picked up a new book from the library. Stolen Focus by Johann Hari (Crown Publishing, 2021) discusses “why our ability to pay attention is collapsing” (from the blurb) and suggests ways to fight back against the external causes. Should be interesting. I’ll let you know.
-—Be curious! (and patient)