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A Starry Night Is on the Horizon for Houston

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What’s that up in the sky? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the Perseid meteor shower. Giving a bit of truth to the Lone Star State’s theme song, the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. In this case, those “stars” are actually meteors racing at thousands of miles per hour as they collide with Earth’s atmosphere.

The heavenly light show is thanks to Earth’s trip through a collection of dust left behind from Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet last passed close to the Earth in 1992 and won’t return again until 2126, but its effect on our solar system can be seen each August with the Perseids.

The meteors will be visible for weeks, and the observatory is opening up its doors on August 12, which will match the most active timing of the meteor showers.

These bright illuminations possess several names depending on where they are located in our atmosphere. Peggy Halford, director of the George Observatory, explains the difference for us.

“The debris in space is called a meteoroid, but when they hit Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, it’s then called a meteor. Additionally, Earth-grazers are meteors that we see earlier in the evening after dark that graze the top of our atmosphere and leave long tails,” says Halford.

While the event occurs annually at the George Observatory, recent years have been burdened with less-than-optimal atmospheric conditions. Obstacles such as light pollution from metropolitan areas or a very bright moon can make it harder to view the starry show. This year, the timing is on our side since mid-August will be when the new moon occurs, setting the stage for a bright and beautiful display. George Observatory’s location far away from Houston also helps.

Adding to the intrigue, these streaks in the sky can pack a powerful punch considering their size. Most Perseid meteors are about the size of a grain of sand, but they are potent enough to light the night time sky. They’re fast, too. It’s nearly impossible for cameras to capture photos of them because of their velocity. According to the American Meteor Society, meteors enter the atmosphere at speeds ranging from 25,000 mph to 160,000 mph.

Just like their incredible speed, their name also has a colossal background. Their title stems from our vantage point on Earth, which gives the illusion that the fireballs originate from the constellation Perseus, named after the Greek hero who slayed Medusa.

In mythology, Perseus decapitated the snake-haired villainess, whose gaze could turn a person into solid stone. Movie buffs will remember the famous scene from Clash of the Titans when Perseus’s character used Medusa’s disembodied head to defeat the sea monster Cetus and save the beautiful Andromeda from peril.

Maybe it’s the Greek mythology backstory, or perhaps it’s the fact that the Perseid meteor shower presents a curiosity, fascination and sense of wonder that draw a crowd. Either way, it’s a great way to learn about and enjoy the spectacles of our solar system for the entire family.

The George Observatory is no stranger to welcoming guests and creating a fun, educational trip. It will also be hosting Rocket Day on Aug. 6. The event is geared toward educating children about rockets, how they work, helping them build one, and exposing them to all the other trappings of space exploration.

While this year’s Rocket Day is already sold out, it’s never too soon to start planning to attend next year for this sure-to-sell-out-again event!

For spectators of the Perseids, Halford offers advice for anyone wanting to attend the event. She recommends bringing some lawn chairs, bug spray, snacks and vivid excitement.

The park opens at 7 a.m. The George Observatory will open its building at 6 p.m. The meteors will start to show in the darker and later hours of the evening. The telescope is open until midnight. The meteors will be visible to the naked eye, and the Giant 36" Gueymard research telescope will allow guests to see the collection of other bodies in the heavens.

Entry into the state park is $7, and entrance to the observatory is another $7 for adults and $6 for children. Halford guarantees that it’s a great location to view the illuminations.

Halford wraps up her conversation with a pitch for anyone wanting to attend. “We’re safe, it’s dark and it’s a great family location. You don’t need anything. The most of the meters start around midnight to 5 a.m.,” Halford said.

On August 12, gather at The George Observatory,  a satellite location of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. For more information, visit hmns.org/george-observatory or call 281-242-3055. The George Observatory is located at 21901 FM 762  in Brazos Bend State Park.

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