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1996 Perseids- The Sky Is Falling!

by Tom Martinez
Astronomical Society of Kansas City

What are the chances of you being struck by a meteor? The odds are very slim. There are no records of anyone dying from a meteoric hit, and there is only one case of someone being injured. On November 30, 1954, a meteor crashed through the ceiling of Mrs. E. Hewlett Hodges in Sylacauga, Alabama. The meteor bounced off a radio and struck her on the leg.

Closer to the present, on October 9, 1992, a meteor crashed on the rear of Michelle Knapp's car in Peekskill, New York. As the meteor came through the atmosphere, breaking into fiery fragments, it was witnessed by hundreds of observers along the eastern United States. There are newspaper accounts of animals being killed, but no confirmed deaths of humans.

Even though 100 million meteors flash above our heads every day, we need not worry because the majority of them are about the size of an apple seed or smaller and burn up completely when they strike the upper atmosphere. The majority of meteoric debris comes down as fine powder and adds several million tons to the Earth each year.
Perseid Chart

If you have never seen a meteor flash across a star studded night sky, now is one of the best times to catch a falling star. As you read this, meteors from the most watched meteor shower are now flying overhead. The Perseid meteor shower is visible between July 25 and August 17, but like all meteor showers, there is a peak period when you can see more than at any other time. The night of August 11-12 is the best time to see between 60 and 100 meteors per hour.

Most people confuse the difference between meteors and comets, but it is easy to tell one from the other. A comet has head which is miles across and a tail millions of miles long. They do not seem to move during a single night, because they are actually out amongst the planets. Meteors, on the other hand, are usually tiny grains traveling less than 50 miles overhead, and disappear in seconds.

Surprisingly, meteors and comets are related. As a comet orbits around the Sun, it leaves a debris trail along its path. Every year, the Earth intersects the comet's orbit, charging through the dust at 66,000 miles per hour. As we traverse through the comets path, the meteors appear to radiate from a particular point in the sky. If you plotted each Perseid you saw back to where it appeared, they would all point to a spot in the constellation Perseus. Perseus rises in the northeast around midnight, therefore you will see more meteors from midnight until morning.

For a chance at seeing them at their best, pick a spot with few trees or buildings to block your view. Give your eyes ten minutes to get dark adapted by staying away from street and porch lights, better yet, go out into the country, like Lewis-Young Park and Powell Observatory. Bring a lounge chair to avoid neck strain, or lay on a blanket. Sweaters and insect repellent will sometimes come in handy.

This is a good year for the Perseids, because the Moon will not hinder your observations. To add to the beauty of this event, on the morning of August 10th, look for a beautiful crescent Moon just below brilliant Venus, and Mars just to the left of the Moon creating a pretty triangle.

An ancient German folk tale states that Saint Lawrence was tortured and killed in Rome on August 10th, 258. The peasants believed that St. Lawrence weeps tears of fire which fall from the sky every year at this time. It may not have been a "Tear of St. Lawrence" that struck Mrs. Knapp's car in 1992, and she surely is not shedding a tear for the crumpled car. A collector paid $69,000 for the ten-year old Chevy and it's outer space invader.

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