published Monday, August 12th, 2013

Stargazers camp out in Chattanooga area for the Perseid meteor shower

In this photo taken with long shutter speed, a meteor sparks, lower right, while entering the earth's atmosphere behind an olive tree during the Perseid Meteor Shower, in Fanos village, central Greece, on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013.
In this photo taken with long shutter speed, a meteor sparks, lower right, while entering the earth's atmosphere behind an olive tree during the Perseid Meteor Shower, in Fanos village, central Greece, on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

PERSEIDS INFO

* Comet of origin: 109P/Swift-Tuttle

* Location in sky ("radian"): Perseus

* Meteor speed: 59 km/second

* Active: July 17 to August 24

* Times visible: 10 p.m. to dawn, northwest part of sky.

Source: NASA fact sheet

It was just another midnight club meeting on the side of the interstate.

Chattanooga's "Impromptu Astronomy Club" rolled out sleeping bags Saturday at state Highway 111's scenic overlook in the Sequatchie Valley to catch the long-awaited Perseid meteor shower.

Four die-hard members snacked on gingersnaps in the darkness, all the while catching the most colorful and active meteor pattern Earth has to offer in the late summer. They passed a set of binoculars and looked up in awe as the occasional semi-trailer barreled through the pitch-black valley below.

"The Perseids are multicolored, and it's very exciting," club organizer Galen Riley said. "This debris is flying around at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour. When it heats up, it just starts shedding, and that debris follows it around in its wake. Occasionally the meteors will just explode halfway through their path."

The Northern Hemisphere was treated to a barrage of Perseid meteors in the early morning hours over the weekend and into this morning. Tennessee residents could have seen anywhere from 50 to 100 distant meteors per hour.

Although the trails can be impressive, each meteor is actually smaller than a human fingernail, if not a grain of sand.

The astronomy club makes its pilgrimage to the tranquil overlook for a better view of the dynamic meteors. Chattanooga's city lights can be too dense for proper astronomical viewing.

"The last time we came out here, there were people just lined up here with telescopes," stargazer Amelia Harris said. "People get into it. It's just fun to come out here and see stuff you can't see at home."

"This overlook has low light pollution, and you're not going to get shot for being on someone's property," Riley added.

Club members take pride in bringing people closer to the stars, even during the day. The club was founded along the Walnut Street Bridge in June 2012 when Venus crossed the afternoon sun's disc. Staring directly at the sun is dangerous, so Riley ordered a bulk box of cardboard 3-D glasses and helped passers-by locate the Earth's sister planet.

"Everybody would have this -- snap -- where they all saw what the thing was, and then you would watch the smiles show up," Riley said.

Venus is not expected to cross Earth's view of the sun again until 2117.

"We got the idea to start flagging people down and say, 'Hey, you should check this out, because you're going to be dead the next time this happens,'" Riley said.

Saturday night was kinder to the club members than Friday, which was cloudy and rainy. Sunday was expected to be the clearest and most active night of all. Members planned to gather with their binoculars yet again.

"If you pick the right spot, you totally get that, 'My God, it's full of stars' moment," Riley said.

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at jlafave@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6472.

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