Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 21, 2009

A gift from Saturn

It was late when husband Art arrived home from work. The car tires crunched on the gravel driveway and then the engine stopped.

I waited, but after the usual delay, the front door didn't open.

When he finally walked in, I asked if he was listening to something on the radio. Being the curious person he is, he can't listen to just part of a program if it interests him.

"No, I was watching the meteor shower," he said. "It's pretty cool."

"Oh, that's right!" I said. "I'm going to watch, too."

The Perseid Meteor Shower was to be at its peak around Aug. 12 or 13. It was near midnight on Aug. 12, almost Aug. 13, so I went to our deck at the back of the house.

"You need to stay out long enough to let your eyes adjust," Art said from his comfortable perch on the couch.

I stood on the deck for about five minutes when Art joined me.

"There's too much tree cover here," he said.

I'd heard the best viewing would be in the northwest part of the sky anyway. So we walked back through the house, turning off all the lights on our way, and went out the front door. We craned our necks, but no luck.

I lay down on the concrete driveway to get a better view of the stars. The sky was beautiful. The Milky Way was clearly visible. Every now and then, a firefly would wander by and I'd eagerly say, "There's one," followed by, "Oh, no, wait. Just a lightning bug."

We saw a few airplanes, lights blinking, high in the sky.

Then the action started. First, we saw a little "zip" across the sky. A few seconds later, another - and another. Some seemed to be just above our neighbor's roof. Others appeared higher. Then came a big flash with a long tail. The tail stayed in the sky for several seconds, like the orange trails from Fourth of July fireworks. We lost count after 12.

I was satisfied. I wanted to see at least one "shooting star" and ended up seeing at least a dozen.

The next day, I searched on the Internet to check out what I'd seen. I discovered that the Perseid meteor shower is the biggest shower of the summer. Meteors - often referred to as shooting stars or falling stars - are really pieces of material ejected from comets. Meteors belonging to the Perseid shower were thrown off from the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun once every 135 years. The particles range in size from a grain of sand to a pea and are bright because they slam into Earth's atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour. What we see is burning caused by friction as the particle enter the atmosphere.

The first written records referring to Perseid showers appeared in Chinese historical texts and date back nearly 2,000 years. In 1835, Adolphe Quetelet from Belgium brought this meteor shower to the attention of astronomers, noting the shower that occurred in August emanated from the constellation Perseus.

This year's high number of Perseids is most likely a "gift" from the gas giant Saturn, according to Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. Cooke thinks that at some point hundreds of years ago, the comet passed especially close to Saturn, and the pull of that planet's gravity helped concentrate nearby debris into a clump. This year is special, Cooke said, because we're now passing through the debris brought together by Saturn, and "that clump of particles will encounter Earth only once."

Art came home late again Friday night and his entrance was delayed again. This time I knew why.

"Did you see any more meteors?" I asked.

"A few," he replied.

So daughter Katie and I went outside, lay down on the concrete driveway and gazed up at the stars. I knew there was a chance we wouldn't see any because the "big" show had been a couple of nights before when she was spending the night with her big sister in town.

"I just want to see one," she said.

Then we did! It was larger than the little "zips" Art and I had seen previously and a bit smaller than the flashy one that left a trail.

"Yay," we shouted simultaneously. We both clapped.

It was the only one we saw before going in, but it was still special. Thanks, Saturn!

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