Most of my readers know that I love to celebrate arcane holidays. For me, the less sense it makes for a holiday, the better. At first glance “Meteor Day” or “National Meteor Watch Day” or “Watch Meteor Day” is a prime example. The name of the holiday depends upon where on Earth it’s being celebrated.
Another head-scratcher is that Meteor Day does not occur during any of the major meteor showers that skywatchers enjoy. You’d think that the nights of the Geminid Meteor Showers in Mid-December might be a more suitable time because the greatest frequency of visible meteors happens then. I suppose the reason that date was nixed is because of the cold temperatures associated with December in the Northern Hemisphere.
Why not celebrate Meteor Day in mid August? The popular Perseid Meteor Showers are promoted then. It would make perfect sense, because the meteor density is the second highest (next to the Geminid showers), and the Perseid Showers happen in outdoors-friendly summer.
A June 30th date seems counter-intuitive because that date doesn’t even appear on a chart of minor meteor showers. An eager skywatcher might have a better chance of seeing an old Mercury Meteor four door sedan than a speck of debris zipping across the sky. When you think about it, why call it Meteor Day? Shouldn’t we call it “Meteor Night”? We have a better chance of spotting a meteor when the sky is dark.
To understand why today is Meteor Day, all we need to do, is consult a calendar of historical events. Glancing at the entries for the 30th day of June we’ll find that in 1908, a major event happened at the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in the Russian Empire.
Something very big entered the Earth’s atmosphere and then exploded over the forested area. The asteroid, or comet, or very large meteor caused as much damage as would be expected from the yield of a 15-megaton atomic bomb. The blast is famously known as the “Tunguska Event”. More than a thousand scientific research papers have been written about the Siberian explosion. There is an entire field of study regarding the Tunguska Event. In that there was no surviving material from the meteoric object, the debate about just what happened on June 30, 1908, goes on.
While we’re thinking about Russia and big meteors, we might remember news coverage about the Chelyabinsk Meteor. The superbolide meteor occured over the administrative district of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013. A large piece of rocky material exploded over the area with an estimated blast yield of a 500-kiloton atomic bomb. Nearly 1,500 residents were seriously injured. Over 7,000 buildings were damaged by the shock wave that affected six cities. The Chelyabinsk Meteor was the only modern meteoric event to cause a large number of serious injuries. The shockwaves were even detected by a monitoring station in Antarctica.
The vast majority of us will never witness a superbolide meteor event in person. Instead, we’ll be treated to the light from micrometeroids as they burn up in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Most of the meteors start out as pebble-size stones. Sometimes larger, rock-sized meteors survive the atmosphere and end up on the ground as meteorites.
Meteor sightings are possible anywhere on Earth, but your best chances of seeing one increase if the sky is dark with little or no Moonlight. There should be few or no clouds.
You may wish to plan a visit to a dark place for the Perseid Shower from August 11th to the 13th. When you get there, look into the Milky Way, then search for the “M” or “W” of Cassiopeia. Near Cassiopeia is the Great Square of Pegasus. If you can see both of those constellations, you will find the triangular array of Persius, in between them. That is the most likely area of the sky to spot the August meteor shower. You should also make note of the best times to view the shower. Most appear after midnight.
Today, better yet, tonight is a great time to remember to view meteors and make plans for the next summertime meteor shower. Who knows? You might even spot a brief flash in the sky, tonight.