Stars, but not of David: annual meteor show graces southern Israel’s skies

Click photo to download. Caption: Amateur astronomer Ira Machefsky, who made aliyah in 2009. Credit: Courtesy Ira Machefsky.

 

By Deborah Fineblum Schabb/JNS.org

Peaking late Aug. 12 and early Aug. 13, Israelis were able to witness the spilled “milk” in the Milky Way and dozens of shooting stars streaking across the night sky. 

In Mitzpe Ramon, a small town in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert, amateur astronomer Ira Machefsky was there to explain why the second week of August is the time to see the year’s best display of shooting stars (well they’re actually meteors, but more on that later)—as many as 60 per hour.  

Earlier this week, the Earth’s orbit around the sun plowed us smack dab into the path of an old comet, releasing loads of debris. This debris plummeted to Earth, passing through the atmosphere and burning up in the sky, which is what we experience as shooting stars. 

Indeed, thanks to the sheer volume of the debris, the annual Perseids meteor shower (thought to originate in the constellation Perseus) can be seen by the naked eye pretty much anywhere in the world (especially in the northern hemisphere) until Aug. 16, says Machefsky, with the rate soaring from a typical one-two an hour to the aforementioned 60. 

So what was so special about the Negev from Aug. 12-13? 

“You have to be able to see the sky and in our modern day, that’s no easy thing” due to light pollution, says Machefsky—a retired hi-tech professional who made aliyah from New Jersey in 2009—in advance of the meteor show’s Negev appearance.

“These days all of Israel from Be’er Sheva north is aglow; it’s encroaching all the time. But here in the middle of the Negev where the sky is open horizon to horizon, you can actually see what city people never can,” Machefsky adds.

Dr. Yigal Patel, an astronomer who teaches at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, says the view also tends to be more dramatic in the desert air. This year, he points out, there is a special bonus. 

“It’s a new Moon next week, so we won’t have that glare,” says Patel, who encouraged his students to do something rare for college-aged folks: wake up before dawn Aug. 12 for the best view from Israel. (U.S. viewers were better off at midnight Aug. 11, says Patel.)  

But for Israelis looking for company—and lots of it—to count shooting stars with, some 10,000 star-gazers showed up at the Mitzpe Ramon soccer stadium for a Perseids meteor show the night of Aug. 12. The crowd in the bleachers cheered not for how many goals their team scores, but for how many meteors shoot by. The town switched off its streetlights, and many homeowners did the same for their own lights. In fact, even some military buildings cooperated, all in an effort to maximize the darkness and thereby the effect of the meteor show.

“It’s terrific because the town goes dark that night and the closest mall—malls are notorious light polluters—is in Be’er Sheva 90 kilometers (56 miles) away,” says Machefsky. 

Renee Hirsch of Jerusalem headed back down to Mitzpe Ramon for her second viewing of the Perseids, having stretched out her sleeping bag in the crater alongside dozens of other members of the Mosaic hiking group two years ago. 

“The darkness was so complete and peaceful,” she says. “And then you have the excitement of ‘There goes one! And there goes another!’ It’s the amazement of catching it and then catching it again.”  

Yet despite the big build-up to the meteor show, there was no way of predicting exactly how this year’s Perseids would go.

“Of course, all the conditions can be in place, but you can’t predict the way it’s going to play out this year,” Machefsky says. “You can make all the forecasts you want, but you can never tell what Mother Nature has in store.” 

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Posted on August 13, 2015 and filed under Features, Israel.