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Meteor shower offers stellar Olympic closing

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As the Olympic Games prepare their closing ceremonies, the cosmos themselves are ready to put on a grand show.

The annual Perseids meteor shower will be at its peak this weekend, sending hundreds of bolts of light speeding through the night sky. It is one of the most spectacular meteor showers the Earth receives: At its frenzied peak, bits of rock from the tail of a comet can plunge through our atmosphere at the rate of 80 each hour, or more.

As they plummet, the friction in the atmosphere sparks the play of colours: The green glow around the so-called "falling stars" is oxygen sizzling. It's busy and beautiful, and sort of makes a person think all about space. It's hard to see it from the city, though: The bright lights down here drown out the bright lights way up there.

"Living in the city, we have very little connection with the cosmos," mused University of Manitoba physics and astronomy Prof. Jayanne English. "This is a way to reconnect with our ultimate origins, the beauty of the universe. We're not separate from space out there, but we're one of the many constituents of a larger cosmos. How do we experience that? One of the ways is watching a meteor shower."

This particular shower has long attracted fans. Humans first recorded watching the Perseids almost 2,000 years ago; they arrive every year at this time, as Earth crosses through the somewhat less elegantly named comet Swift-Tuttle's tail.

Here's how Manitoba families can join the long list of Perseids observers: First, you have to head out to the country -- or a very dark area in the city -- between 11 p.m. today and 4:30 a.m. on Sunday. That's when the shower is expected to hit its peak, with Sunday night also offering good viewing.

Once you've found your spot, turn to the northeast section of the sky, towards the constellation Perseus, and prepare to be dazzled. No telescopes are needed to view the shower.

The fact the moon has waned to only a crescent will help make the Perseids stand out even more. Sometimes, you can see the light from a meteor shower playing over people's faces.

If you do head out to watch the PerseidS, and find yourself catching the space bug, there's a spot for that. The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada has a chapter in Winnipeg that organizes star-watching parties, lectures and other events to sate people's cosmos curiosity. They can be found online at www.winnipeg.rasc.ca.

You don't need a big background in space to appreciate the shower, however -- just imagine it as the astronomical version of a more terrestrial grace.

"It's kind of like a dance between the Earth the sun and a comet," English said. "You're interacting with ancient history."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 B3

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