Heaven’s own laser show

Skygeeks across the land are are always fired up for the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks this weekend. With a bombardment rate of 60-100 visible rocks and rocklets per hour, this is often the most striking among the recognized annual meteor showers, and probably the most venerated. Unfortunately, this year a waning gibbous moon is just about perfectly positioned to cramp everyone’s viewing style, as its bright reflected light will drown out a fair number of shooting stars. But it’s still worth a look, and viewing should be optimal late tonight, or to be precise, between midnight and dawn Saturday morning. Find a spot far removed from ambient light, slather on some bug repellent and point your face toward the northeastern sky, which will keep the moon more or less behind you as the earth spins its way toward sunrise.
This meteor shower is so named because the bulk of the activity appears to emanate from the contellation Perseus. For those of you who have forgotten your Greek mythology, Perseus was the dude who slew Medusa, the foul gorgon with snakes for hair and whose modern-day incarnation is probably Phyllis Schlafly. Perseus includes a star famed in astronomy circles, Algol (“The Ghoul” in Arabic), a so-called variable star with an apparent brightness continually cycling through a wide range in a period of only 2.9 days. This is because Algol is part of what is termed an eclipsing binary system; from a distance of 93 million light years the system obviously appears to us as a single star.
One thing I enjoy about celestial events like the Perseids is that they take me back close to 25 years, when I was a full-blown astronomy buff who was repeatedly stricken with innocent wonder over the marvelousness and vastness of it all. Such a nerd was I that I would be willing to posit I was the only 11-year-old in the state of New Hampshire who recognized what this letter sequence depicts:
O B A F G K M

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  1. #1 by Jim on August 11, 2006 - 1:04 pm

    I was a budding astronomer too, and nothing was a worse insult than someone asking about my “interest in astrology”. I still cringe. I found a site with some funny alternate mnemonics:
    http://astro2.byu.edu/~sdb/Mnemonic.html
    Here’s one of my own:
    Ossified and Brain-dead, Alberto-Fucking-Gonzalez Kisses Mummies
    or maybe:
    Officially, Bush Abuses the Frigging Gitmo Killing Machine
    I seem to have a problem with the “F”…

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