Okay, so Captain Kirk was right. Space is the final frontier. As a child, I heard him say that dozens of times on “Star Trek,” which I faithfully watched on our trusty old black and white TV.
About the size of a small refrigerator, that TV was hot stuff for its time. It picked up four whole channels! I especially liked turning the channel-changer knob, which dropped into position with a remarkably satisfying “clunk.” For that reason, if no other, that old set (was it a Philco?) will live on in memory forever.
Yep, technology is a wonderful thing. Especially since it brought space, in the form of “Star Trek,” right into our very own home.
Space and technology, it seems, go together like – well, like space and technology.
But come the second week in August, you won’t need technology beyond your very own eyes to experience some space-type excitement on your own. The reason? The annual Perseids meteor shower.
We Earthlings get to see the Perseids each year when Earth intersects the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. That comet orbits the Sun every 130 years or so, leaving a trail of tiny sand-sized pieces of comet debris in its wake. When one of those pieces encounters our atmosphere, it plunges in at an unbelievable 37 miles per second. Friction with the air causes the fragment to burn up in seconds in a streaking blaze of light – and that’s when some lucky observer (maybe you or me!) gets to see a meteor.
Since these particular meteors appear to come from the area of the constellation Perseus, they’re called the “Perseids.”
Though a few Perseids meteors are already appearing (experts say they started about July 25) and will continue to be seen to some degree until about Aug. 18, the peak viewing will be Aug. 12 through 14.
What will you need to see some of these meteors? The answer is “not much!” In fact, you won’t really need any high-tech aid at all. All that’s really required is your eyes and a comfortable chair.
Speaking of chairs, one that reclines is ideal since it lets you rest comfortably as you scan the sky for those ephemeral streaks of brilliance. That’s definitely easier on the ol’ back than standing up and craning your neck, something that we (how to put it) more seasoned sky watchers appreciate more and more each year.
Or you can dispense with the chair and just lie back on a blanket on the ground. That works too.
What about binoculars? Some like to use low-power, wide-field binoculars to gather more light and make fainter meteors easier to see. But your unaided eyes will work just fine.
You’ll need one more thing too: a willingness to give up some sleep. Meteors are best viewed in the dark, of course, and the best viewing will be sometime after midnight. But for determined meteor watchers, that’s not a problem. They’ll tell you that sleep is overrated – especially when there are meteors to be seen.
Finally, you’ll need a nice observing spot – ideally one that’s away from the distracting artificial light of civilization. Yes (and despite the obscuring glow from nearby streetlights and occasional passing cars) I’ve been able to see them from my front driveway. But I always see many, many, many more if I make the effort to get away from light pollution and find the darkest sky I can find.
Where can you go to find such a spot?
Aside from your driveway or backyard, or from the middle of a nearby horse pasture (ask first, of course), there are a number of other possibilities.
One of the top sky-watching locations in Georgia is Stephen C. Foster State Park down in south Georgia’s Okefenookee Swamp. This park has been certified as a dark sky park by the International Dark Sky Association and is a top destination for folks who want to check out the sky without the aggravations of light pollution.
Laura S. Walker State Park in Waycross is also offering some special events tied to the Perseids – among them “Meteor Showers and S’mores” on Saturday, Aug. 14. Contact the park at (912) 287-4900 for details.
Another excellent bet, and one that’s not quite so far away for most of us, is Hard Labor Creek State Park in Rutledge. The park is offering a number of ranger-led after-dark kayak tours, weather permitting, designed with the express purpose of seeing Perseids meteors. These are scheduled on Aug. 11, 12, 13 and 14 (that’s Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Note that preregistration is required, and each trip is limited to 10 participants (8 years of age or older). Learn more by calling the park at (706) 557-3001.
In any case, once you’ve located a good watching spot, set up early to give your eyes time to adjust. If you must use a flashlight, put a red filter over it to preserve your night vision. Turn off the cellphone, too, for that bright screen can quickly obliterate your night vision.
Bone up on your constellations. Learn where Perseus is. Then find a good spot, settle in around Aug. 11 to 14, and put your eyes on the sky.
Yes, TV sci-fi is good. But this is way, way better!