Last week, B. and I, clad in layers of fleece, down, and wool, headed out to watch the Perseid meteor shower. This stream of cosmic debris, stretched along the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle, is named for the point it appears to come from (the radiant): the constellation Perseus. This Greek hero’s adventures defeating monsters provided some of the classic foundations in Greek mythology. Perseus destroyed Medusa the Gorgon, and rescued Andromeda from a sea monster sent by Poseidon to punish Cassiopeia for boasting that her daughter, Andromeda, was more beautiful than the sea nymphs that kept Poseidon company, the Nereids.
Although frequently called shooting stars, meteors aren’t stars at all. The comet, traveling on its 130-year orbit, ejects particles some of which are a thousand years old. The Perseid meteor shower has been observed for about 2000 years. Visible from mid-July every year, the shower peaks between August 9 and 14, depending on location, sometimes reaching a rate of 60 or more meteors per hour. We saw them across the entire sky, but because of the path of the comet, Perseids are primarily visible in the northern hemisphere. The Perseids, typical of meteor showers, usually peak in the pre-dawn hours. The spot we picked howled with wind, fog blowing in from all sides.
As the Earth turns toward the sun, it collects more meteors as it moves through space. Bundled in our sleeping bags, thermos of hot chocolate and flask of whiskey in hand, we – ourselves mere particles too – mingled with cosmic dust that’s been around for a millennium.