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Clouds obscure Perseid meteors

The wee hours of Sunday morning were clear, and forecasters insist the same will be true after midnight tonight. But at 1 a.m. this morning - the predicted peak of the 2007 Perseid meteor shower - the skies around Baltimore were shaded by low clouds, which later produced a rain shower in some spots.

Isn't that just our luck? Those who turned out to watch for the meteors were largely disappointed. (Where skies were clear, the shower was reported to be thinner than expected, but nicely seasoned with spectacular fireballs.)

Nicole Fuller, intrepid Sun reporter assigned to be up in the middle of the night with video photographer Karl Ferron to cover the event from Alpha Ridge Park in Howard County, filed this report.

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These disappointments happen. Some would say they happen most predictably when I write about an upcoming celestial event. But there is some consolation.

First, there are meteor showers - good ones - throughout the year, and if you turn out for enough of them faithfully, you will eventually be rewarded by a good show. And that will make you forget all the disappointments. (The Leonids in mid-November and the Geminids in mid-December are often very rewarding.)

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Second, the Perseid shower has what veteran observers call a "broad peak." That means that, while the absolute peak, for us, occured behind clouds early this morning, the number of meteors is elevated for several days before and after. In fact, they were elevated early Sunday morning. Looking out at a starry sky, and worried that Monday morning's weather might be less than ideal, I ventured out between midnight and 1:15 a.m. Sunday. Under clear skies, spotted at least six meteors, five of them Perseids.

Likewise, those who can get outside late tonight and early tomorrow morning should see more than the usual number of meteors flash across the sky. Many of them will be Perseids. And the weather forecast is, once again, promising.

Last night's ill-timed cloud cover was actually predicted yesterday by ClearSkyAlarmClock.com  It showed good "seeing" for Baltimore on Sunday morning and Tuesday morning, but opaque skies Monday morning. And that's what we got.

If you want to avoid similar disappointments in the future - and would like to be alerted when your skies look good for stargazing - a free subscription to ClearSkyAlarmClock is very helpful. Sign up, and they will email you every day when the forecast predicts good "seeing" at your location.

For now, and for those of us who stayed up late last night only to be disappointed, here is a gallery with three pages of Perseid photos, shot from places where skies have been clear.

One more thing. One of our headlines, and some of the stories that have been running about the Perseid shower, have used language that suggests these showers "light up the sky" with meteors. Hardly. At their best, the Perseids arrive at rates of 50 to 100 per hour. That's roughly one a minute. It's a lot of meteors, and it can be very exciting and addictive to watch. But they hardly light up the sky.

Only on the rarest occasions do meteor showers perform like that. The November Leonid shower in 1833 put on spectacular show. Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass both witnessed, and wrote about that one. Here's more. In cases like that one, these "showers" are more properly described as "storms."

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