Monday, August 8, 2011

The Perseid Meteor Shower, 2011

The Perseid meteor shower takes place each year during the month of August, and is by most accounts the best meteor shower of any of the meteor showers located on earth's annual orbit around the sun (for a comparative list of meteor showers, click here).

We previously examined the reasons why meteor showers have calendar dates and constellation names, in conjunction with the June Lyrid meteor shower earlier this year. That meteor shower appears to originate or radiate from the constellation Lyra, while the Perseids of course radiate from the constellation Perseus. Above is a diagram of Perseus using an unlined star chart and adding the lines created by author H. A. Rey in his excellent book The Stars: a New Way to See Them (originally published in 1952).

To find Perseus, look between the "W" of the constellation Casseiopeia, which is among the "imperishable stars" or circumpolar stars that never set except for viewers at latitudes near the equator, and the constellation Taurus the Bull.

Perseus is often depicted in ancient mythology wearing a special cap called a "Phrygian cap," the peak of which curves forward or "flops over" at the front. The importance of this particular type of headgear is discussed in detail in Professor David Ulansey's work on the ancient Cult of Mithras (also known as "the Persian Mysteries" among the ancients themselves), which is discussed here.

As can be seen from the constellation outline above, this mythological detail may well have originated from the constellation in the sky, if you believe along with the authors of Hamlet's Mill that the figures in ancient mythology came from the stars and planets, rather than the conventional opinion that the ancients peopled the figures they saw in the night sky with characters who already existed in their mythology (an extremely important distinction, and one that is discussed in greater detail in this previous post).

While the Perseid meteor shower is at its peak, however, the moon is waxing (currently in its first quarter -- which is a half-moon -- on its way to becoming a full moon). The bright reflected light from the moon acts like a street-light in the sky when it comes to observing meteors. Therefore, star-gazers may want to look for the Perseids after the moon has set. A good discussion of the best way to do that, as well as help on determining the time of moonset in your location, can be found in this post from the Urban Astronomer.

Enjoy the show!