Driftless Dark Skies: Fire in the Sky

August 9th, 2018 by John Heasley

In the summer of his 27th year, John Denver was camping above the tree line outside Aspen CO when he was awed by the sight of Perseid meteors streaking across the sky. The experience inspired him to write “Rocky Mountain High”: “I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky/The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullabye”. You, too, can be awed by the Perseids when they return this month to the dark skies of the Driftless.

You can see meteors all through the first part of August, but the Perseids peak will be the night of Sunday August 12/13. 2018 is an especially good year because there will be no moonlight dimming the spectacle. What we are seeing are small grains left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle.  As our planet passes through the stream of comet dust, they enter our atmosphere at 100,000 mph and the streaks light up our skies.

We’ll see the most meteors after midnight (when our part of the planet starts facing the dust stream) and before 4am (when our skies begin to brighten). You can also enjoy the Perseids in the evening. Sunset is a little after 8 and the sky is fully dark by 10. There are fewer meteors during this time, but the ones you see can be impressive. They are called “Earthgrazers” and they move more slowly and leave longer trails across the sky.

It’s easy to enjoy the Perseids. Find a dark spot away from town lights. You don’t need any special equipment such as binoculars, just your eyes. Keep the flashlights off and let your eyes dark adapt so you can see more. It’s best to be comfortable and looking up, so bring a reclining chair or blanket or inflatable mattress. Remember to dress warmly. Temperatures can drop even in the summer, and you won’t be moving around much. Don’t forget snacks. The direction you face really doesn’t matter since meteors can appear in any part of the sky. I like facing the northeast, so I can keep an eye on Perseus just below the “W” of Cassiopeia. If you face away from Perseus, you should see meteors with longer trails. Bring friends to see all the meteors you miss. You can expect to see a meteor every couple of minutes and maybe more often.

As you’re watching pieces of another world fall to Earth, be sure to enjoy the sight of four worlds overhead. Venus is brilliant low in the west until it sets around 9:45pm. Jupiter is almost as bright in the southwest until it sets around 11:30pm. Saturn is golden in the southern sky.  Mars is glowing like an ember in the southeast and is bright all night long. Enjoy the fire in the sky and the planets all month!

Iowa County Astronomers has their monthly meeting on August 10 in Dodgeville. There’s an indoor presentation at QLF Agronomy Research starting at 7:30pm, and then we head over to Bethel Horizons to view the skies with a wonderful 17-inch Dobsonian telescope donated by Mike Wolkomir. Everyone is always welcome. ICA will be sharing a public program at Governor Dodge on August 25 (Twin Valley Picnic Site 7pm). Universe in the Park will be at Governor Dodge (August 11) and Blue Mounds (August 4). UW-Madison astronomy students visit state parks to give talks, answer questions, and share telescope viewing. Programs begin around sunset. Northwest Suburban Astronomers will be at Wildcat Mountain sharing a talk and stargazing on August 11 (8-11pm) and safe solar viewing August 12 (1-3pm). This friendly group escapes the light pollution of their homes outside Chicago to enjoy the dark skies of our Driftless Area. For over a week, they create an astronomy village in the group campground where they welcome the public for a night of memorable stargazing through their amazing telescopes. Kickapoo Valley Reserve offers dark skies and a Perseids Party on August 12. Starsplitters of Wyalusing has a public program (8:30pm) at Wyalusing State Park on August 18. The evening begins with an indoor presentation in the Huser Astronomy Center and then continues outdoors to explore the sky with their fine collection of telescopes. They also offer a “star party” on August 11 when you can join them for observing and to learn more about telescopes.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.

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