The Perseids: Our Connection to the Stars

It is time for the Perseid meteor shower, August's illuminating pre-dawn treat for sky gazers. The fiery streaks of dust and sand-sized bits of grit are the sparkling wake residue of comet Swift-Tuttle, last seen in northern hemisphere skies in 1992. The late-night, early-morning hours of Sunday and Monday, August 11-12, should be a great time (clear skies required) to lie out on the lawn, a meadow, a mountain campsite, or on a blanket at the beach as the Perseids draw sparks across the dome of night.

It's also a good time to take stock of where we came from, the places of origin of the whole of humanity, all the living creatures, and the lovely blue world on which we travel through space and time.

The Perseids, one of the most dependable upper-atmospheric light shows of its kind, reminds us that we are of the stars. Our bodies, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the gems we treasure, the electronics with which we communicate, the cities we build, the very machinery of civilization, all owe their chemical existence to the progenitors of the Perseids' fireworks.

From time to time, as comets sail through our solar neighborhood, they leave behind luminous trails through which we pass, sweeping up elements as simple as carbon, silicon, and oxygen, and as precious as gold and platinum. Every day, the earth, in its passage around the sun and galaxy, is coated with tons of space dust, most of it unseen and unnoticed as it drifts down from the heights.

The accumulating interstellar ash traces its beginning to supernovae spraying their chemical elixirs across the universe. From the furious finales of those massive stars come the elements necessary to form everything we touch, see, smell, and breath. Life as we know it could not exist absent the rain of elements generated in the hearts of dying stars.

When you see the bright flash and needle-thin streak of a meteor, imagine the stellar inferno that forged its chemistry millions or billions of years ago. Consider the time it took for that one small cosmos-traveling grain to make its way from the furnace of its birth across the vastness of space to a sizzling collision with our shield of air. In that winking in and out of sight, the Perseids are sending us a message: We are stardust.