Comet Dust Brings a Spectacular Sky Show

The annual Perseid meteor shower, produced by remnants of the Swift-Tuttle comet, is back. Dean Regas, outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, says the best time to see streaks will be in the early morning hours of August 12.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Brace yourself. This weekend, the Earth is about to have an encounter with a whole swarm of aliens, a close encounter - well, it's not very much. It's just cosmic dust. Yeah, it's really nothing. It won't be earthshaking. It's actually something we like to see. It's going to be very interesting. It's going to produce the annual Perseid meteor shower, which may be your best chance all year to see a bunch of fireballs ripping across the sky.

And my next guest has some viewing tips. If you're planning on photographing the meteor shower, we'd like you to send us your photos. Yeah. You're going to be out this weekend, you're going to take maybe a nice fireball or something coming across, send your photos to us. We'll put them on our website. And the address is website@sciencefriday.com. And tell us where and when you took them. We'll make a map out of them. Maybe we'll put them on a map there and show everybody who took these pictures. We'll feature the best ones on our website.

Dean Regas is the outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory in Ohio. He also co-hosts PBS's "Stargazers." He joins us from WVXU in Cincinnati. I love saying that radio. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Regas.

DEAN REGAS: My pleasure. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Does it promise to be a good one this year? Or can you not know?

REGAS: You paint a great picture. You paint a great picture. You make it sound like the sky's going to be falling.

(LAUGHTER)

REGAS: I hope that's the case, because what you'll be seeing is pieces of comet debris that is left behind by this comet named Swift-Tuttle, and the best time to see it is out Sunday night into Monday morning. But you can also look Saturday night into Sunday morning, and the day after, too. It peaks right around Monday, but you could see it a few days on either side of that.

And we want people just to get out, away from the city lights. And you've got to stay up a little bit late. So it's a great excuse to stay up past midnight to check these out.

FLATOW: Yeah. Maybe, you know, get that lawn chair out, right? You get a little snack, some folks you like to hang out with, make a party.

REGAS: Most definitely. Most definitely. And that's what we want to encourage for people to do, is this is the great summertime activity, great summertime star party, we like to say. Because some people are still on vacation. The kids are still off school, and then they can get out there. And get your - get a recliner chair out there, you know, a bed out there, whatever you need.

FLATOW: Yeah.

REGAS: Because you want to take in a big area of the sky. You don't need binoculars. You don't need a telescope or anything like that. And just kick back and enjoy.

FLATOW: Let's talk about a couple of those things. First, you know, with the advent of smart phones, you could just set your smart phone out to just buzz at a certain time, at midnight, and you may not even remember about it. And then you find yourself outside, the phone goes off, and now you can have an instant star party there.

REGAS: Exactly, exactly. I'd say set your alarms, because the best time to watch is at two to 5:00 AM, which is really early, even for a night owl like me. So, yeah, I'd say get to sleep, set the alarm, go out about midnight or so to get started. You'll see some early ones around then. And - now, this is the other thing, is that we do want to warn people that meteor showers are notoriously fickle.

They may show, they may not show. We usually expect about 50 an hour that go by. And so you think, OK, one a minute. That sounds good. But you could sit out there in the dark for 30 minutes and not see one. And then all of a sudden, you see two or three or four streak across. You just - it really rewards patience. That's for sure.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you should be patient about getting your eyes used to the dark, too.

REGAS: Yeah. Most definitely. And getting away from city lights is the most important thing. So for folks here in the Midwest, this is the prime time, because other meteor showers are usually in the winter time. And so we have great weather, generally, clear skies, generally. And - but getting out there a little bit early to get your eyes adjusted is always good. And then if you're doing some star parties, like you said, bring out some people you like and love and some coffee, and enjoy.

FLATOW: Yeah. And for you folks out there in the Midwest and the Southwest where it's a lot of flat land out there, that's what you need, right? You need a good view of the open sky.

REGAS: It helps. And it's also - the meteor showers are called the Perseids because they seem to radiate from this area, this constellation called Perseus. And so you have to have Perseus up in the sky, which he rises a little after midnight. So initially, early on, you want to face east. That's where he'll be. And you want to be able to - that's where the meteors should streak out of, somewhere around there. But they go from all over the place, too.

And then as the night goes on and the early morning, then you can kind of kick back and look straight overhead.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. And the good part about this is that this is the cheapest part of - cheapest astronomy that you can do.

REGAS: That's about it. And that's what's great. It's open to everybody. You just go outside, and you'll see it. On any given night, you can see a meteor go across the sky. This one just - we know about, because every year the Earth flies through this comet debris, and we know it's there and we know it's going to happen. And it's been doing this for, you know, hundreds and thousands of years, and we can see this. And, yeah, no equipment needed. Just your eyes and the patience to stay up.

FLATOW: Let's talk a little bit about another sky spectacular that's been promised for us. That is the comet that's supposed to be coming by, what, sometime in November, ISON. Is that still on schedule?

REGAS: Oh, boy. I was hoping you weren't going to bring that up.

(LAUGHTER)

REGAS: ISON could be another one of those comets. It could be one of those PR disasters for us astronomers. You might remember back in 1973, Comet Kahoutek.

FLATOW: Right.

REGAS: The comet that was supposed to be the comet of the century, and then fizzled out. ISON? Oh, boy. I hate to say it, but it's looking like it's fizzling already.

FLATOW: Oh, no.

REGAS: I know. I'm very depressed about it.

FLATOW: You promised. You promised.

(LAUGHTER)

REGAS: See? This is why we don't make press releases, Ira. We don't. Astronomers aren't good at that. We're not - we're usually good at predicting things, but comets and meteors, we are terrible, and they are so unpredictable. So the good news is ISON is not brightening up too well, but, you know, it might brighten up later.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

REGAS: You know, maybe we're wrong now and it's going to surprise us.

FLATOW: Yeah.

REGAS: So want to keep everybody's expectations low, and then when it brightens up, then we'll be surprised, and then the astronomers will be everybody's friend. But - we're hoping. Our fingers are crossed that this comet - it's called I-S-O-N - and it is going to arrive right around Thanksgiving.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

REGAS: So it'll be a nice November comet, and it'll be in the morning sky right before Thanksgiving, and then a little bit after Thanksgiving.

FLATOW: You have said that you get a lot of calls about UFOs this time of the year. Well, why is that?

REGAS: Ah, yes.

FLATOW: Is there a season for them or...

REGAS: This is an interesting thing, is that as an astronomer, I never knew this was part of my job, is that on a Monday morning, I check my phone messages, I check my email, and invariably I get the: Oh, I saw something in the sky. There was lights, and all this stuff. And so it's kind of fun to have to answer these questions because people have been looking up, which is what we want to encourage...

FLATOW: Yeah.

REGAS: ...most definitely.

FLATOW: Yeah.

REGAS: But right now, Venus is the culprit. You - listeners have probably noticed it up in the sky. As you're driving home from work, right low in the sky is this really bright light, and it's Venus. It's in the west, right after sunset. And even it got me the other day.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

REGAS: I was driving home and...

FLATOW: Yeah.

REGAS: ...I saw it, and I said, what is that thing? It's so bright.

FLATOW: Yeah, it got me, too. It must've been the same night.

(LAUGHTER)

REGAS: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: I thought it's an airplane. It's got to be an airplane. And it didn't move. You know, I was driving along...

REGAS: And, you know, what I always - I am always hopeful. I'm always thinking, oh, please. I hope that's a supernova. That would be great. That would be great. We need a supernova. But, no, it's Venus - which is very exciting, too. And it'll be around all the way through the end of the year in pretty much that same location, just about that high, you know, about 20 degrees off the horizon, low in the southwest. And so people can definitely check it out. But don't worry. It's not a UFO.

FLATOW: No. And in this era of social networking, are people Tweeting and whatever when they see something? Or is there anything - any communal socializing going on this weekend expecting during the meteor shower? Anything like that?

REGAS: Well, I would recommend - you know, clubs around the country are doing events, that's for sure. Our club here in Cincinnati, at the Cincinnati Observatory, we go out to a dark sky site, a park, you know, about 30 miles outside of the city. And that's where you can kind of see the Milky Way, even, overhead, which is a great sight to see. Most people have never seen that in their life, and so this is a good excuse for that.

I'd say check in with your local astronomy club, your local planetarium, your local observatory, and see what events they're doing, because it's a great way to get initiated into the field.

FLATOW: We have one tweet that came in about something interesting, that maybe you can help out. DDNH writes: Is there a simply method to photograph spectra of the upcoming meteor shower using a diffraction filter?

REGAS: Ooh, very, very difficult to do. First, photographing a meteor at all is very difficult, because it just happens so fast, and they come - you're not sure where they are. Most of those meteor pictures you see are people with cameras that are photographing the entire sky every second of every night, and, ooh, look, I got one, finally.

Doing the spectra is really tough. I would say if you can photograph one without - yeah, just normally, that would be impressive.

FLATOW: Yeah.

REGAS: The spectra is a little bit tougher, because you never know where they're going to be coming.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me just repeat that: If you have a good photo, and you're going to be out this weekend and you're planning on photographing the shower, and you can take a photo out there - I don't know if you can - can you get a good streak on a - if you have a time exposure, could you see a meteor flashing across?

REGAS: Oh, sure. Sure.

FLATOW: Yeah.

REGAS: If you're pointed the right place at the right time, you can capture it. So with all the digital cameras out there, I'd just say, you know, keep shooting. And...

FLATOW: Should you leave the lens open, if you have a camera, and just let it stay open? Is that a...

REGAS: That's the other way that people are really successful. They put it on a tripod, and they just let it go and take a long exposure photograph of the sky. That gives you a little more chances. You also get to see some satellite streaks going overhead, too.

FLATOW: Oh, that's right. That's right. You can also watch for satellites at the same time.

REGAS: Exactly, exactly. And if you get to a really dark sky, I mean, you take a long exposure photograph of the sky, you see the stars slowly moving. You get those star trails. You might pick out the Andromeda Galaxy. There's a lot of stuff to do. And now that we have these digital cameras, amateur astronomers are making some amazing photographs.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

REGAS: And we have amateurs at the Cincinnati Observatory that made this calendar that, I mean, these pictures rival the Hubble, I think.

FLATOW: Wow.

REGAS: It's amazing.

FLATOW: And if you have those, we want you to send them to us. You can send us your great photos. We'll put the best ones on our website. And the address is website@sciencefriday.com. I can't wait. Let's just keep our fingers crossed for the weather, right?

REGAS: I'm hoping. Good weather. We're not sure about it over here, but anywhere you are in the country, see if you can get out to some clear skies and see it.

FLATOW: All right. Anywhere around the world, if you're listening to the podcast. Yeah.

REGAS: Pretty much. Pretty much anywhere. And, you know, the morning is a little bit better than the evening, so it's one of those things you've got to stay up late for.

FLATOW: All right, Dean. Thanks for taking time to be with us.

REGAS: Hey, my pleasure. Keep looking up, Ira.

FLATOW: We will. Happy stargazing. Dean Regas is the outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory in Ohio. He's also co-host of PBS's long-running "Stargazer" series. Terrific. Keep looking up.

Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.