Our planet is moving through space at a tremendous speed. Miraculously, we don’t feel it. Even better, 66,000 miles per hour is just right to keep us where we are in relation to the life-giving benefits of the sun. We’re in the right lane, doing the right speed.
But occasionally we drive through the debris of a comet or, possibly, the remnants of an asteroid. The majority of these leftovers are very small, maybe not larger than grains of sand. Occasionally, they are considerably larger. In space, these objects are called meteoroids. If they are large enough and make their way to the earth’s surface, we name them meteorites.
As a meteoroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, the air in front of it is compressed and rapidly heated, burning up the meteoroid and turning it into a meteor. It’s a brief existence, but wonderful to see. On any given night one may be lucky enough to see one of these “shooting stars.”
Astronomers have calculated multiple times of the year when we get to see a real display, a shower of meteors. The chart to the right will give you approximations of dates and the maximum number of meteors you might see under perfect conditions. It’s best to check for the best viewing times and dates. The meteor shower names come from the apparent originating point, or radiant, of the meteors. So, for example, look for the Eta-Aquarids near the constellation Aquarius. The best time for viewing them is, roughly, from 2:00 a.m. to sunrise on the morning of May 6.
Meteors are among the most beautiful objects in the night sky. But, with beauty sometimes there can be danger. That’s why NASA works to identify and track near-earth objects that are large enough to potentially be a concern.
Sometimes, though, smaller but still significant chunks of rock enter our atmosphere unnoticed. This past December, a meteor the size of a bus exploded about 16 miles over the Bering Sea with a non-nuclear force ten times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Apparently, its entry angle and relatively small size kept it hidden from detection. It lit up the sky but caused no damage.
Meteors and meteorites are well known to Arizona. The world-famous Meteor Crater near Winslow is the result of an asteroid striking the earth some 50,000 years ago. Closer to home, the Tucson Meteorite, housed at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., comes with a rich tale that originates with the discovery of iron masses in the Santa Rita Mountains. Two large pieces—1400 and 600 pounds, respectively—were used initially as blacksmiths’ anvils in the 1800s.
Bringing it back to today, what do you need to see a meteor shower? Just a dark, safe spot with a wide view of the sky. They’re cost-free: way too fast for binoculars or telescopes. I can’t predict the weather, but with a new moon coming on May 4, the EtaAquarids might be worth a sleepless night.
Editor’s note: Harold Meckler shares his love for the night sky in this column. He is the author of “Monsoon,” a novel about imagination, awe and self discovery.