TOKYO (majirox news) — Did you ever wish you could see a night sky that looked like Van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night? If you get out of Tokyo in the next few days, you can. Go to the deepest darkest countryside, look roughly to the northeast, about halfway up from the horizon, and you will see showers of shooting stars as they plunge to earth.
From roughly Aug. 9 through to about the 24th, peaking on Aug. 12 and 13, anyone in Russia, Japan or North America will be able to see the Perseid meteor shower. Japan is scheduled for a full moon on Aug. 14 and it should be almost full on the 12th and 13th, but looking in almost any direction away from the lunar satellite, you’ll be able to see meteors falling from the sky.
The Perseid meteor shower is a yearly event. It happens when the earth passes through the debris and dust left by the Swift-Tuttle comet on its 130-year orbit around the sun and then back out to the furthest reaches of the outer planets beyond Pluto. The orbit of the earth around the sun intersects the debris left by this comet. This produces the meteor shower. It’s called the Perseid meteor shower because its “radiant” — the place it seems to radiate from — is the constellation Perseus.
“Comets are just big dirty iceballs,” says Dr. Stephan Maran, a well-known astronomer and editor of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Encyclopedia. “A comet is a stuck-together mixture of ice, frozen gases (such as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide) and solid particles which includes dust and chunks of rock.” Comets can be anywhere from a few kilometers in diameter to dozens of kilometers.
The European Space Agency did a close pass to Halley’s Comet in 1986 and one researcher compared it to tartufo, a kind of lumpy chocolate-covered ice cream dessert, says Dr. Maran. “The probe photographed plumes of gas and dust from geyser-like vents or holes (on the surface of the comet) which sprayed into space.”
As the comet get closer to the sun and heats up, some of the frozen gas is vaporized and blown out into space, along with various debris. This gives a comet its distinctive tail as it travels through space, and is left behind and shed in its orbit. The earth passes through this debris and it produces a meteor shower.
Even though there will be a full or almost full moon on the peak nights of the meteor shower, you should be able to see them perfectly well. “You don’t have to face towards the radiant when you observe a meteor shower” Dr. Maran adds, “although many people do. The meteors streak all over the sky and their visible paths may begin and end far from the radiant.”
The best time to see the Perseid meteor shower is when it reaches its height after midnight on Aug. 12 or 13. As many as 80 meteors an hour will cross the sky.
Light pollution in Tokyo kills any chance of being able to see the Perseid meteor shower, so you have to get out of town to the deep, deep countryside where there’s no light or buildings around to interfere. What better excuse could you possibly ask for –not that you needed one — to get out of town this O-bon vacation?