Newswise — Little Rock, Ark. (Aug. 9, 2013)--By day, Research Associate Darrell Heath is an animal lab technician in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Department of Biology.
By night he is looking up.
Heath is one of hundreds of space enthusiasts from across the country selected to convey news about the solar system to the general public through the Solar System Ambassador program of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Heath has been an ambassador for NASA for about three years and is serving as current president of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society. Heath said that, weather permitting, the Perseid Meteor Shower may offer some viewers the best shooting star show of 2013.
The meteor showers will peak this weekend, promising as many meteors per hour as 60 to 80, according to Heath. (Rates of up to 100 per hour are possible, if rare). Although peak night is Aug. 12, sky gazers will still be able to see a few showers up to at least a week after that, he said.
“The most fascinating thing to me about the Perseids is the fact that they have such a long history, going back at least 2,000 years when Chinese astrologers were keeping meticulous records of events in the sky,” he said.
One of the more interesting things Heath learned recently is the Perseid’s connection to Roman Catholic Church traditions.
“At the time of Saint Lawrence's martyrdom (Aug. 10, 258 AD) the skies rained down with meteors and were referred to as ‘The Tears of Saint Lawrence,’” Heath said. “That has a rather poetic ring to it.”
Heath said the majority of meteors are due to an object no bigger than a grain of sand colliding with Earth’s atmosphere and suddenly compressing that air to such an extent it heats it up to about 3,000-degrees Fahrenheit, making it glow.
Meteor matter hitting the atmosphere comes from comets, remnant building material billions of years old that went into making our solar system.
The Perseid showers are especially known for producing fireballs that may streak across a third of the sky. Their nearly 134,000-mph speed produces brilliant light when hitting the upper atmosphere. At about one-fifth of an inch wide, the dust grains burn nicely when they streak overhead.
To get the best out of meteor viewing, Heath has a few tips for observing:
• Find the darkest skies possible from which to observe. Some of the streaks will be faint, and in order to see them you will need to get away from as much light pollution as possible.
• Let your eyes get accustomed to the darkness. Sitting outside in the dark for 30 minutes to an hour will give you fine dark adapted eyes, and you will see many more of the fainter meteor streaks.
• Avoid using lights of any kind, such as flashlights or cell phone lights. A second or two of exposure to bright light can ruin your dark adaptation. Red plastic film may be used to cover the front of a flashlight since red light is least damaging to dark adapted eyes.
• Do not expect to begin seeing many meteors until well after dark. Rates will gradually increase throughout the evening and will peak as you get into the dawn hours just before sunrise.
• Be patient. There will be moments of much meteor activity followed by lulls. Hang in there, things will pick up again eventually. Get comfortable, don't strain your neck trying to twist around to constantly scan the sky. Lay down on the ground on a blanket or pad or recline in a lounge chair and let your eyes rove around the sky without having to constantly swivel your head.
• You won't need any kind of special equipment, but a pair of binoculars will reward you with some spectacular star fields as you scan the Milky Way from the southwest to overhead and across to the northeast parts of the sky. If your skies are especially dark, there is simply the grandeur of the Milky Way itself to observe.
• Make sure you have water and snacks on hand along with some good insect repellant.
• Invite family and friends. A meteor shower party is a great bonding experience and even if you don't see many meteors, you will at least have spent some quality time with people you care about and maybe even have created a few memories that will last you and them a lifetime.
• Meteor showers can be a great opportunity to get kids interested in astronomy and stargazing. Lots of questions may come. If you don't know the answer, just say “I don't know, but I'll bet we can find the answer out together.” Helping find the correct answer can be an educational experience for you both and also teaches children how to navigate libraries, books, the internet and other resources for information.