Dark Sky Park: The Perseid Meteor Shower

Aug 7, 2013

IPR: It's all over the news about the Perseid Meteor Shower this week. What can viewers expect?

MARY: The Perseids are our most well-known meteor shower and though the parent comet of this shower wasn't discovered until 1862 this shower has been known about since at least the 5th-century B.C. Perseid Meteors are fast and bright and many leave persistent trains and it's predicted there will be as many as 70 meteors an hour so that's a fun show at more than one per minute! Viewers can expect a lovely evening both before, during and after the peak with Venus, our brilliant evening star, gracing the western horizon at sunset on Sunday, August 11 followed by the crescent Moon's approach to Spica and then Saturn just to the left or south along the horizon from Venus. These planets will set and then the meteor shower itself will peak overnight from the 11th to the 12th typically around 2 to 3 am. I should mention, however, that the meteors can be seen throughout the season and as we draw close to the peak things really pick up. Monday evening, then, on the 12th the Moon will have traveled to its position between Spica and Saturn and together with Venus all four celestial objects will make a beautiful "first act" for the showering stars that will continue later this night as well.

IPR: We know that meteor showers are caused by earth traveling through the trail of stuff left by a comet as it passes through our planetary system and that the parent comet to the Perseids, Comet Swift-Tuttle, travels through every 133 years. Was this known to the ancient stargazers as they crafted their stories and mythologies of the night?

MARY: It's an interesting question and one that's hard to answer from our perspective on things in the 21st-century. The original story of Perseus points to long-held cultural beliefs about birth processes and to the idea that each human being comes from a particular star. Typically we only hear about the single star that appeared over the birth of the Christ Child 2000 years ago but this story taken in context with pervasive beliefs at the time, such as the story regarding the birth of Perseus from a shower of golden stars, suggests that it wasn't such a wild idea to believe that each birth was the completion of a process of coming from the stars. 

More specifically with the hero Perseus the mythology is that his mother Danae was a princess the daughter of King Acrisius. Acrisius longed for a son and visited the oracle to find out when he would have this son. He was told, however, that not only would he not have a son but that his daughter would have a son that would slay him. To prevent this fate Acrisius confined his daughter to a brass vault in the Earth open only to the stars overhead. It is here that Zeus espied her and, transforming himself into a shower of golden stars he rained down upon her, impregnating her. One of the most popular renderings of this myth comes from Sophocles "Antigone," and this particular scene has been the inspiration for much great art including the Venetian master Titian's series of five paintings referred to as "Danae and the Shower of Gold" from the mid-1500s.

It's a beautiful exercise to get out under the open sky to watch the setting sun and the first visible stars and planets to watch their setting and then to await the meteor shower, all while imagining what it must have been like to believe that you came from a particular star and that your birth was heralded by that star in a particular season. And how thrilling, then, to see a shower of shooting stars! Even the commoner would have sensed that a mighty birth was imminent.

IPR: Is the Greek myth of Perseus the only tale associated with this shower?

MARY: No, there are other cultural tales that regard meteors as strengthening forces sent from the divine world into the physical to work like iron in the blood building up the capacity to ward off low or toxic forces. The Perseids are like the onset of the hero's journey and the hero has to face the giant Orion. Their tale unfolds with the Orionids in October. The next chapter has to do with subduing the animal nature which comes with the Leonid Meteor Shower in November followed by the human capacity for discernment with the Geminids. In Gemini we have the twins, one mortal, one immortal, so with this shower in mid-December the hero is faced with a choice. And if he proves successful then he achieves the still point of Winter Sosltice and the Ursid Meteor Shower that occurs at that time is to his glory.