x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Nature's fireworks on brilliant display

Hundreds of shooting stars will speckle the sky in the next few nights as the Earth passes through a trail of comet debris.

Stars shine out over the desert near Liwa. Astronomers say people can better see the meteor shower if they get away from well-lit towns.
Stars shine out over the desert near Liwa. Astronomers say people can better see the meteor shower if they get away from well-lit towns.

Steal a glance at the heavens late tomorrow night and you'll be treated to the rare spectacle of a series of shooting stars, according to astronomers. A meteor shower that has been going on discreetly since late July will finally light up the skies after midnight tonight and through Thursday night.

The Earth is passing through the trail of debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle on its last visit to the inner solar system in 1992. It takes about 130 years to orbit the Sun, so it will not be back this way until 2126. "As comets orbit the Sun, they shed a stream of rocky, icy debris along their path," said Dr Nidhal Guessoum, a physics professor and astrophysics expert at the American University of Sharjah."If the Earth passes through this stream, we will see a meteor shower as those pieces enter our atmosphere and burn in it."

The best bet for people hoping to see the showers - known as the Perseids - is to get away from well-lit towns, according to Hasan Ahmed al Hariri, the chief executive of the Dubai Astronomy Group, a non-profit association of astronomy enthusiasts with 1,300 members worldwide, including 800 in the UAE. The group is assembling at Dubai's Margham area to watch the climax of the event from the desert, which Mr al Hariri recommends for unimpeded viewing.

"Light pollution prevents us from even seeing the stars," he said. In the desert, however, it is "quite dark, so it's better to see the events". The Perseids will first appear in the small hours of Wednesday morning, when the meteorites will appear to emerge from a single point in the sky known as the radiant, in the constellation Perseus, which only rises after midnight in the UAE. The spectacle is one of several meteor showers visible annually in the country. But stargazers believe it is more exciting than the others for two reasons.

"It's brighter and the frequency of the meteors is much higher," said Mr al Hariri. "And sometimes we see fireballs." A "fireball" occurs when a larger meteor bursts into flame. "This year's meteor shower is expected to be a nice show, as the Earth goes through a more 'crowded' region of comet debris than usual," Dr Guessoum said. As a result, Mr al Hariri is expecting a good turnout. "I'm very excited. We had almost 200 people last year, and today I've had so many phone calls from people asking about the event," he said.

One hurdle to viewing, however, is the half-full Moon, whose brightness could potentially obscure the dimmer meteors. Another potential spoiler for stargazers is dust clouds, but Mr al Hariri was hopeful. "There aren't any dusty forecasts in the next few days, so we're hoping it stays the same," he said. Dr Guessoum is also optimistic: "The weather should be fine and clear, school is out for youngsters, and this is one of those astronomical phenomena that can be watched by naked eyes."

Stargazers would also be greeted with more familiar sights if they camped out. "Jupiter will be up and bright all night, Mars and Venus rise late in the night around early dawn, and for those who have good telescopes, Uranus and Neptune will be up there too most of the night," he said. Baher al Hakim, 29, the Syrian owner of a social media company and an astronomy enthusiast, said he had been looking forward to the Perseids ever since hearing that Swift-Tuttle might collide with the Earth or Moon in 2126.

That prediction had since been debunked as a calculation error, but it was exciting to observe an object similar to the one that had a hand in the extinction of the dinosaurs, Mr Baher said. "It would be cool seeing a meteor shower in the sky," he added. "I don't know if I can stay up that late, but if I do I'll go to the desert, to Hatta or Bab al Shams, where it will be really dark." Ridhi Kantelal, an astronomy enthusiast based in the UAE, who will watch the shower from her holiday home in India, said she hoped people wouldn't miss out on the event.

"I saw my first meteor shower when I went camping in Portugal with my friends seven years ago," she said. "I truly hope everyone gets to witness them at least once in their lives." newsdesk@thenational.ae