Watching for Fire in the Sky

In the summer of his 27th year, John Denver was camping above the tree line outside Aspen, Colorado, 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 Aug. 12-13. This 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 4 a.m. (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 9:45 p.m. Jupiter is almost as bright in the southwest until it sets around 11:30 p.m. 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!

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies above.