Meteors This Week, Eclipse Next

by Sanibel Chai

Though the Great American Eclipse will be visible at midday in Nantucket on August 21, the island is not in the path of totality. This means we will only observe a partial solar eclipse. If you are looking for a nighttime astronomical spectacle, the peak of the Perseid meteor shower is the night of Saturday, August 12 into the following morning. The Perseids are a product of the debris and dust left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle. When the earth passes through this trail of debris from mid-July through August 26, we see the Perseid meteor shower. The peak of a meteor shower occurs when the Earth is passing through the densest and dustiest part of the path of the comet.

Typically, at peak viewers will see roughly 80-100 meteors per hour. However, the moon will be at three-quarters full on August 12 and the brightness of the moonlight will render the smaller and fainter meteors more difficult to see, leaving roughly 40-50 meteors visible per hour. We are well placed on Nantucket because the shower is best watched in the Northern hemisphere to mid-southern latitudes.

Observing a meteor shower requires patience. Your eyes take about half an hour to adjust to the darkness so you will not be able to see the meteors as soon as you begin watching. When viewing, look for faint streaks as well as the more dramatic bright, fireball type meteors. Between midnight and dawn could be the best viewing times.

Even with just 75 percent of the sun eclipsed at maximum, the coming solar eclipse is still an exciting event. The island’s Maria Mitchell Association is offering lectures, workshops, and more this week leading up to this rare astronomical event.

Beginning Monday, August 14 the public is invited to visit the Maria Mitchell Association at 4 Vestal Street to receive a free pair of solar viewing glasses. These glasses allow people to safely observe the eclipse without damaging their eyes. Aside from solar telescopes, these safety glasses are the only safe method of directly observing the eclipse. They will be available Monday through Friday from 8am until 4pm: one pair of glasses per person while supplies last.

On Tuesday, August 15 from 2 to 3 pm, the MMA will offer a Pinhole Camera Workshop. Participants will learn how to turn an ordinary shoebox into a pinhole camera, safe for a projected viewing of the eclipse. Registration at mariamitchell.org is necessary for this workshop as there are limited seats. The following evening, Wednesday, August 16, from 7 to 8 pm, the MMA will offer a lecture: The Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 with the MMA’s Director of Astronomy, Dr. Regina Jorgenson, and the MMA’s Deputy Director and Curator, Jascin Leonardo Finger. The talk will focus on the science and history of solar eclipses. Dr. Jorgensen and Finger will demystify the natural phenomena of solar eclipses and shed light on how they were perceived by early astronomers, including Maria Mitchell herself.

No registration is necessary. Fee to attend is $10; members of the MMA are admitted free of charge.