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Perseid Meteor Shower Excites Skywatchers


You know, one of the downsides of being in a studio all night is you miss all the good meteor showers. There was a great one last night, an annual event called Perseid because the meteors seem to come from near the constellation Perseus. The next best thing to actually watching was catching up with Alan MacRobert. He's senior editor at Sky and Telescope magazine. We called him just before sunrise.

ALAN MACROBERT: I'm lying out on a lawn chair on my back under the stars, looking at a satellite creep across right now. And there have been quite a few meteors.

GREENE: And what exactly do the meteors look like and how many of them are there at a time?

MACROBERT: Well, I've been out here for an hour, and I think I've counted about 25 or 30. And this is through a not-very-high-quality suburban sky. We have light pollution out here. I'm about 20 miles outside of Boston. But there's still a pretty good view of the stars and a pretty good view of the meteors. Fast-zipping streaks of light, some of them very faint, some of them rather bright and leaving glowing float trails behind them for a few seconds.

GREENE: And we call this a meteor shower. But is that too strong a term? I mean, is it more of a trickle?

MACROBERT: Well, perhaps yes. If you think of a rain shower as a shower, then yes, it's not like that. Under a really dark sky, you might see a meteor a minute on average. But it's a lot more of them than usual. Usually, you will only see, oh, three or four or five random meteors per hour. But here, you can get a few dozen.

GREENE: And, Al MacRobert, help me understand, I mean, why does this happen around the same time every year? Is it just that this is the time we can actually see this and these meteors are always on the move, or what's going on?

MACROBERT: Well, it's the Earth that's always on the move. We're going around the sun in our orbit once a year. And when we go through the August 12 point in our orbit, we intersect a stream of meteoroids - little, tiny particles, sand-grained, pebble size in space - that is always streaming through that area. And we go through the stream, sort of like walking through a waterfall.

GREENE: I like that metaphor. And I know you've been doing this routine with your lawn chair and a lot of patience for some years now. What keeps you coming back to see this?

MACROBERT: Well - oh, the lure of amateur astronomy, the lures are many. So much of it is utterly mind-blowing in terms of sizes and distances and times and numbers. And, well, it whisks us out of our everyday life, gives us a wider perspective on where we stand in the universe.

GREENE: Well, lean back in that lawn chair. I hope you have a little more time before sunrise to see a few more of - more of the show. Thanks so much for talking to us.

MACROBERT: I will be doing that. Thank you.

GREENE: That's Alan MacRobert. He's a senior editor at Sky and Telescope magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.