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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Perseids Meteor Shower Star Party Sunday August 12, 2018

The best meteor shower of the year, the Perseids, peaks this year (2018) on Sunday night August 12 into early Monday morning August 13. The shower has peak rates of over 100 meteors per hour, and since it occurs in the warm summer months is a popular summer star gazing activity. To help celebrate the event Mitzpe Ramon is turning off all its town lights after  10:00pm and hopefully the other lights from military bases in the area to create an especially dark sky. The darker the sky, the more meteors we see. Mitzpe also holds a town star party which this year will be located in the Machtesh to avoid  over crowding the town with the thousands of people who usually come to see the event. During the day up to 20:00 there will be various astronomical events and free lectures around town. Details here. Hotels fill up quickly so if you are coming you should reserve your rooms immediately.

Astronomy Israel will be having its own star party on August 12 with special star party pricing of 75nis/person over the age of 6, no charge under 6. This is a big discount from our regular star tour prices, but we want every one to be able to come and enjoy the show. We will be out most of the night from dusk until whenever. This is an especially good year for the Perseids since there is no moon in the sky, as the moon is new on Sunday night and sets with the sun. A bright moon severely interferes with seeing the dimmer meteors in a shower. This year we will be doing both Hebrew and English tours of the night sky during the star party, with my co-pilot Ziv handling the Hebrew tour.

We are pleased to be holding this year's star party in conjunction with the Alpaca Farm of  Mitzpe Ramon who will be hosting the star party and providing camping accommodations to guests. They will also be selling drinks, snacks and, food. Camping at the Alpaca Farm is 120nis, including Alpaca Farm entrance fees. (Bring your own sleeping bags and tent, the Alpaca Farm is just providing the space.) A super-special discount for the star party: 25nis/person (6 years old and up, no charge under 6) if you sign up for the star tour together with camping at the Farm. Contact the Alpaca Farm to arrange for camping with them, not me. Mention the star party if you want to sign up for the special Alpaca Farm star party price. Those staying elsewhere should sign up directly for the star party at my booking site. The cost is 75nis/person (6 years old and up) if you are staying elsewhere.  No entrance fee to the Farm if you book the star party directly at my booking site. To contact the Alpaca Farm:
Phone: +972-52-897-7010
Web site:

The Alpaca Farm is just 5 minutes behind Mitzpe Ramon, down Ben Gurion Boulevard, the main road into Mitzpe Ramon.

To book the star party directly if you are staying elsewhere, click the button below:
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Other campgrounds around Mitzpe Ramon for viewing the meteor shower:

Meteors are what most people call "shooting stars" or "falling stars", but they are neither. They are bits of rock and debris from outer space that fall to earth and burn up from the heat of friction with the earth's atmosphere. It's their light generated by friction with the earth's atmosphere that we see. Usually these rocks from space just fall randomly so we only see a few per night. But sometimes the earth passes through the orbit of an ancient comet, which disintegrates as it orbits the sun and leaves a debris trail behind. As the earth passes through this cometary debris trail scores of particles fall to earth simultaneously creating a meteor shower. Really good showers like the Perseids can have peak rates in excess of 100 meteors per hour. Of course most of these are quite dim, but many bright ones are also visible creating "Ooohs" and "Ahhhs" from the onlookers.

Comet orbit
As the earth passes through  the orbit of an ancient comet debris rains down of our planet creating a meteor shower.
Israel is ideally placed this year to view the shower as the peak falls during the early morning hours of August 13 in this part of the world. Meteor scientists are also predicting a mini-peak around 11:00PM on August 12 as the earth passes through a small stream of particles left behing by Comet Swift-Tuttle, the comet that is the origin of the debris that makes up the Perseids Meteor shower. Make sure to be out by then.

Most meteors are quite tiny, minuscule even, about the size of a grain of sand. Of course, we don't  see an object that small in the sky, we just see the tremendous light generated as they burn up from friction. They begin to become visible at heights of around 50 miles to 175 miles high. But sometimes enormous objects fall to earth. Most recently the Great Chelyabinsk Meteor fell to earth on February 15, 2013, over the town of Chelyabinsk Russia. It was 60 feet in diameter and weighed over 12,000 tons when it entered the earth's atmosphere at a speed in excess of 100,000 MPH. It was the largest meteor to fall to earth in over 100 years and was captured by numerous dashboard cameras. I put together a compendium of the videos on YouTube, and it is one of the most dramatic astronomical events of recent memory:

If meteors are large enough they can survive their fiery fall through the earth's atmosphere and hit the ground, as the Chelyabinsk Meteor did. They then change their name to meteorites and can be found, collected and researched. They are primordial pieces of the solar system, over 4 billion years old. As usual I will have my large bag of magic "rocks from space" with me, and you will be able to hold real "shooting stars" in your hand. Also, as usual, we will be raffling off free meteorites every hour (retail value 50nis), and Yes, if you don't win one and really want to take one home we will sell them to you if you insist.

Two of the meteorite pairs we will be raffling at the star party: A Tektite (left)) and a fragment of the Campo del Cielo (right).
Meteors can be observed from any dark sky location and no optical equipment is needed or even desirable. They can appear anywhere in the sky so the best place to see them is a dark sky location with open horizons. Just lie down  on the ground and look up. That's why Mitzpe Ramon is such a popular location for viewing them. People often ask me where is a dark sky location besides Mitzpe and my answer is, "I don't know." I do almost all my observing from Mitzpe. You know your own area better than I do.My impression is that in the center of the country along Route 35 and 38 there are a number of parks where  the sky may be suitably dark, but I've never observed from there myself.

If you trace the path of meteors in a shower back from their source they appear to emanate from a single location in the sky, a particular constellation, called the "radiant" of the shower. The Perseids appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus, just below Cassiopeia. as the radiant rises higher in the sky more meteors are seen. That happens after midnight in August which is why the early morning hours are usually the best for viewing the meteor shower.

Perseids meteors
Time lapse photo of meteors appearing to emanate from the "radiant" in the constellation Perseus.
Although the peak of the shower is very sharp there is also a great increase in the number of meteors a few days before and a few days after the peak. This chart is an illustration of the the prediction of the rates for the shower in 2016:

Perseids ZHR
Predicted Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of the Perseids in 2016

As you can see from the above chart while the peak is quite sharp, which is why people try to come on the night of the peak, these is still quite an uptick in meteors 3-4 days before and after the peak and sometimes even longer than that, with rates in the 30 or so per hour, still far more than are seen on an average night. Of course most of these are quite dim, but there are still a few bright ones, fireballs, that make the night memorable, so it is also worth coming for a look at the shower a few days before or after the peak, although predicting what you will actually see then is impossible. But the sky will still be quite dark as there will still be no bright moon in the sky.

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