Among the stars

Photo by Scott MacNeill

The Perseid meteor shower is one of the highlights of the night sky in August. They peak this year on August 12, but that’s not the only night you can see lots of action in the heavens. In fact, August may be the best month for casual observers to see shooting stars.

Shooting stars aren’t really stars, of course. They’re meteors, bits of cosmic debris no bigger than a grain of sand. They may be relatively motionless in space, but our planet is a freight train, whizzing around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour. When our atmosphere collides with these tiny granules of debris, the friction causes them to burn up. The glow is what we see as shooting stars.

Several hundred tons of  meteors enter our atmosphere every day, which is why you may see shooting stars any night of the year. But we’re not the only things circling the sun. Comets also travel in our part of space, leaving trails of debris in their wake. Every year, we pass through the same wakes; the debris in those wakes causes annual, predictable meteor showers.

The Perseids are actually a fairly large region of space debris – it takes us from mid-July to mid-August to pass all the way through the wake of this particular comet. So don’t feel you’ll miss everything if you’re not out on August 12.

That’s a good thing, because this year the peak coincides with a moon that is just past full. The moon rises that night just before midnight, so even though the Perseids usually show more meteors just before dawn, this year the early evening is probably your best chance to see shooting stars.

(By the way, if the night is clear on August 7, watch for a potentially stunning moonrise. The full moon will be rising in the east at 8:34 p.m, exactly when the sun is setting in the west. It could be a gorgeous show.)

If you’re not able to catch the Perseids this year, don’t worry – there are plenty of other meteor showers throughout the year. Here’s a calendar of when the biggest ones peak.

With so many meteor showers, then, why is August the best month for casual observers to spot shooting stars? Because it’s the most pleasant month to be outside at night. The evenings are warm, but the insects are finally waning. The days are getting a bit shorter, so you can see full darkness before midnight. And it’s still prime cottage season, so more of us are out in the darkness, well away from the city’s light pollution.

The best way to see shooting stars, on any night in Muskoka, is to head to the Torrance Barrens. It’s a designated dark sky reserve, a vast area with less light pollution than anywhere else in the region.

It’s also a spot with large areas of open rock. In August, these can bake in the sun all day, then hold the heat for hours after sunset, providing a warm bed to lie on and watch the night sky.

Still, it’s worth bringing a sleeping bag or blanket for when the chill begins to set in. And be sure to put a red cover on your flashlight as you walk across the barrens – otherwise, you’ll ruin the night vision of anyone out there. Simply sliding the light into a red plastic bag will do the trick.

The cottage can also be a great place to stargaze, particularly if you and your neighbours have dark sky-friendly lighting. If you don’t, you will soon need to: there are new bylaws coming in to place to make all lighting dark sky friendly. Huntsville’s bylaw, for example, is outlined here.

If you’re considering some new outdoor lighting, or want to upgrade your existing system, call us and discuss options. We can recommend some experts, and are happy to ensure everything is incorporated into your landscape design.




Posted in Connecting with Nature.