August is one of the best months for viewing meteors and August 12 in 2009 is the peak viewing day for the Perseid meteor shower. A random meteor might be seen almost any night, but when there is a concentration of meteor activity it is known as a meteor shower. The moon rises around midnight so the best time to look for the meteors might be before then. Some astronomers recommend around 11PM EDT. Focus on the skies to the northeast.
Meteors are pieces of space debris that burn up as they enters Earth’s atmosphere. Much of the debris comes from comets that have passed through our solar system. Most of this material burns up completely and never reaches Earth. The meteor showers are often named for the constellation from which they seem to fall from the sky. The Perseid shower is so named because it seems to emanate for the constellation Perseus.
To get the best view of the meteor shower it is best to get away from the lights of the city. A good rule of thumb for determining if the surroundings are dark enough to get a good view of the shower is: If you can see all of the stars in the Little Dipper, it is probably dark enough to see the meteors. While searching for the dark viewing location consider where the meteor shower will be in the sky. Since the Perseid shower will be viewed toward the northeast, finding a location south of the city lights may be defeating the purpose.
As the meteors streak across the night sky the material on the surface of the meteor burns off and forms a flaming tail that trails behind. Many people have referred to these objects as shooting stars or falling stars but they are neither.
There is an interesting fact about the Perseus constellation. One of the stars in that constellation is known as Algol which comes from Greek meaning ghoul or demon- Demon Star. The interesting thing about Algol is that it was the first “variable star” to be discovered. A variable star is one where the brightness of the star changes. In the case of Algol about every three days the brightness of the star changes from a mid-level second magnitude star to a lower level third magnitude star. The variation was first discovered in 1667. The reason for the variation is that Algol is actually a double star where the two stars are very close together. They orbit each other every three days so the drop in brightness is due to one star eclipsing the other.
There are lots of fun things in the night sky. Enjoy the shower!