The Perseid meteor shower is back this month. A prime viewing spot is close to the Mackinac Bridge. Current State talks with Mary Stewart Adams of the Headlands International Dark Sky Park.
Informed stargazers know that August is the month of the Perseid meteor shower. That’s when the Earth passes through the dust from the tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Debris trailing the object become visible as blazing streaks of light as they enter our planet's atmosphere. According to the website earthsky.org, this can result in as many as 50 sightings per hour, a captivating display.
Meteor showers are of particular interest at a remote spot near the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula. That’s where you’ll find the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, just west of the Mackinac Bridge.
Current State talks with Mary Stewart Adams, a veteran stargazer and skywatcher who is Program Director at Headlands in Emmet County.
What exactly is a “dark sky” park?
A dark sky park is an area of land that is protected because of its natural darkness and where we’re mitigating light pollution. And the designation comes from the International Dark Sky Association, which is located in Tuscon, Arizona.
This is the oldest organization in the world that has set itself up specifically to protect and steward natural darkness in those areas and throughout the world where it still remains. They have very rigorous criteria that they set up that you have to meet in order to receive their designation, which we achieved in 2011.
Tell us about the Perseid meteor shower.
What you need to know is the meteor shower is named for the constellation from which the meteor seems to radiate. So when that constellation is highest over head, then you have the strongest showing of stars falling through the sky. That’s about 2 a.m. in Michigan.
What are we seeing exactly?
It sometimes a particle that is no larger than a grain of sand. It strikes our atmosphere and because of the speed at which it’s moving, it burns up. So we see the trail of stuff that’s left by that burning up. And sometimes, the color can be quite remarkable and that is determined by the elements that make up that substance. So for instance, if there’s nickel and you’ll see this kind of blue-green flash, which can be magnificent. The thing that’s most exciting about the Perseids is that they seem to leave really long trails so you can see it or quite a while.
The thing about the Perseids also that makes it exciting for stargazers is that it really marks the beginning of the most active meteor shower season. Because now we have a meteor shower almost every month until we get to December.
Ever seen anything strange while stargazing?
It was a standout moment.
It was a February and I was in Petoskey. We were near Stafford’s Perry Hotel where we had a beautiful view over the bay looking at the constellations. We had some telescopes set up aimed at the region of the constellation Orion. Most people were lined up to look at that and listen to the astronomers that were manning the telescopes.
A woman walked up to me and asked me about a lecture I had given a few weeks earlier about a particular star in the constellation Cetus. I pointed off in a direction where no one else was looking but this woman, her daughter, and I. And as I was pointing off into space, something seemed to move toward us. We both kind of stopped. This happened over a period of about 30 seconds, so not really long, but long enough for us to both say “Ooh, what is that?” And just as I said that, it just immediately disappeared and a shooting star went right over the area where it was. It just moved very quickly. It seemed to come in, bank up, stop, and then disappear. We looked at each other and were exclaiming. There was no way to describe what it was.
Now we have drones and maybe it was something like that but we heard no sound, there wasn’t any light. It really stopped in its motion.