By Dúlra

Dúlra’s got a crick in his neck today after spending an hour looking up at the sky, eyes stretched wide, waiting for a shooting star.

He saw only two on Monday night – which on the one hand was a little disappointing, but on the other hand a rare treat.

The meteor shower happens at the same time every year, but usually it’s spoiled by the light of the moon. This week, the moon was nowhere to be seen – apparently it was a small crescent which dipped below the horizon at 10.30pm.

And so the sky was as dark as it could be in August and the clouds thankfully seemed to remain thin directly overhead, like a bald patch. The only difficultly was the nighttime glow of Belfast. More than 150,000 street lights (yes, someone has counted them) sent an orange sheen into the heavens. Dúlra put on a coat and found a secluded part of the garden where at least the hedges provided some shelter from the glow.

The two shooting stars – réaltaí reatha in Irish – were gone in half a second. They were as fast as a camera flash – a short streak across the sky, with a thin tail and a wider head, much like a traditional firework.

They are particles breaking off the Swift Tuttle comet, named after the two guys who discovered it in the 19th century. They burn up when they hit our atmosphere, and although they might only be the size of a grain of dust, they hit at such speed that they create a fireball.

The Swift Tuttle may light up our night sky with beauty and fill us with wonder, but it’s been called the single most dangerous object known to humanity.

Many scientists were convinced it would eventually strike earth, just like the one which killed the dinosaurs. But then one scientist looked back through history to find if anyone had recorded seeing this comet before Swift Tuttle. And he found that the Chinese had seen it in the century before Christ.

And so he was able to recalculate its orbit and confirm that it wouldn’t come anywhere near the earth or the moon for the next 2,000 years. Hooray!

Dúlra remembers seeing what he now knows as the Swift Tuttle meteor shower in its full glory way back when he was a lad. He was sitting in the street with mates, each one of us screaming as another shooting star burst across the sky. But the best way to see them is head for the country, as far away as possible from those city lights. Dúlra remembers his first trip to Donegal when he went to Arainn Mór on a Gaeltacht course. Walking home one night in the darkness, we were all flabbergasted by the sky. It was like a cinema screen with thousands of stars. Was it the same sky that we had in Belfast? It certainly didn’t look the same.

It’s said that it’s possible to see 4,000 stars in perfect conditions – and with perfect eyesight. That night in Donegal, each one seemed to be twinkling.

With binoculars, that number jumps to 200,000. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are 400 billion stars. And there are 170 billion galaxies… and counting.

Dúlra’s ageing eyes can see about 40 of them on a good night in the garden. But tonight he’s heading to Donegal to visit his daughter who’s at her own Gaeltacht course.

And the Swift Tuttle is due to put on another lightshow. Anyone got a spare neck brace he could borrow?

If you have any nature observations or questions, text Dúlra on 07537 404249.

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