Earth Slams Into Comet Dust

Of the six-and-a-half billion or so people standing on this rock as it slammed at 67,000 miles per hour into dust left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, a hundred or so were gathered on the side of a hill in Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia. Some lay back on blankets staring into the night sky, some wandered the hillside with red flashlights so as not to ruin everyone else’s view, and some peered into telescopes big and small as others explained to them the mysteries of the universe.

We looked back in time – 14 billion years in the case of the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules; there were mythical heroes and numbers too large to contemplate. We saw the moons of Jupiter and squinted to see its great red spot. And we saw shooting stars – lots of them. The best ones streaked across the night sky to a chorus of oohs and aahs.

What we were all there for is the annual National Air and Space Museum’s Star Party, which is timed to coincide with the annual Perseids meteor shower. The meteor shower is caused when the Earth, which revolves around sun at 67,000 miles per hour, passes through a cloud of dust that the comet Swift-Tuttle leaves in its wake. When pretty much anything hits pretty much anything else traveling at 67,000 miles per hour, you can expect a show. The dust particles explode with a brilliant flash of light when they slam into the gas in the Earth’s atmosphere, becoming a shooting star.

If you missed tonight’s show, you’re not out of luck. The Perseid peaks tomorrow; the best time to watch is in the hours before dawn.

Michael

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