Grand finale of fireballs sparks dark community challenge

The peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower arrives early Monday. In honor of the light show, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park is holding a special event.

Forget the fireworks sparked by human hands, parts of Northern Michigan are gearing up for a light show like no other to wrap up the summer.

The peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower arrives early Monday. In honor of the light show, the Headlands International Dark Sky Park is holding a special event.

The "Picnic with the Perseids" and "Lights Out" challenge will be lead by comet discoverer Patrick Stonehouse. Stonehouse, who discovered Comet Stonehouse from his rooftop observatory in Wolverine, Mich. in 1998, will join Headlands Program Director Mary Stewart Adams for an evening devoted to the stories and the science of the Perseids, and the ensuing season of shooting stars it inaugurates.

"Because the Moon comes to New Phase just four nights before the peak of the meteor shower, we will not have to contend with an undue amount of natural night light," said Adams. "And we've timed our event to take in the best views of the night, starting with sunset over Lake Michigan at 8:53 pm, and followed, in order, by brilliant Venus to the West, the blue white star Spica, the waxing crescent Moon and Saturn to the South. All of this sets before the meteor shower starts to get active, so the whole evening promises to be beautiful."

The Perseids usually reach a peak rate of somewhere around 50-100 meteors an hour (the prediction this year is for 70 an hour) - though sometimes far more. The most meteors occur toward morning, when the constellation Perseus is highest overhead - between 2 and 3 a.m. If you follow the trail of the meteors back to their point of origin, they appear to radiate from in front of the constellation of Perseus, which rises in the northeast portion of the sky at about 9 p.m. in the Northern Hemisphere during August. But you'll be able to see the shooting stars regardless of what part of the sky you are watching. Perseids are famous because they can produce some of the brightest and fastest meteors of the year, often leaving persistent trails. Peak activity occurs between Aug. 10-13, though they are visible to some degree throughout all of August.

The shower is caused by Earth's passage through the trail of stuff left behind by Comet Temple-Tuttle when it whizzes through our system. Temple-Tuttle orbits once every 133 years, and was last closest to the Sun in December, 1992.

The Picnic with the Perseids will take place Monday from 8:30-10:30pm at the Dark Sky Viewing Area at the International Dark Sky Park. You are asked to bring your own picnic food and supplies. No reservations are needed and the event takes place rain or shine.

Also on this night: Lights Out Across the Straits challenge

The Straits of Mackinac area enjoys the unique and prestigious distinction of being home to one of only eight International Dark Sky Parks in the U.S., and one of just 11 in the world, at Emmet County's Headlands park property.

In celebration of protecting the night sky, the communities of Mackinaw City and St Ignace are taking part in a friendly "Lights Out Across the Straits!" challenge set for Monday, Aug. 12, 2013 from 10:30-11:30 p.m.

The challenge? See which community can achieve greater darkness.

The event is timed to coincide with the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower on Aug. 12, the most popular meteor shower of the year. Area residents, guests and business owners can show their support by signing a Lights Out Pledge and posting their support in residence windows or at the entrance to business locations.

The pledge forms are available at the Chamber Offices in both Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, and online.

"Signing the pledge means you agree to turn out your outdoor lights and inhibit any indoor light from spilling outside for one hour, from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m., on Monday, August 12," said Mary Stewart Adams, Dark Sky Park Program Director at the Headlands. "It's free, it's fraught with good will, it saves money, and provides a great way to get to know your neighbors."

How will it work? Step one: Prior to the event, designated Emmet County staff will measure the sky quality, using a Sky Quality Meter that registers darkness levels, in St. Ignace and in Mackinaw City.

Step two: Between now and the event, area residents, business owners and visitors will pledge to turn out the lights.

Step three: On Aug. 12, between 10:30-11:30 p.m., turn out your lights across the Straits!

The amount of difference in the quality of darkness from lights-on to lights-off will be announced at local gathering places and on Emmet County's Web site and Facebook page.

"Though this is the first year of our effort to raise the standard for effective community action regarding the night sky, we can translate the different measurements into kilowatt hours and dollars and cents, so that we can all be informed about how much we are saving by turning out the lights," Adams noted.

The Lights Out initiative, led by Emmet County, includes the joint efforts of St. Ignace and Mackinaw City Mayors and Village Managers, Council Members, both Chambers of Commerce, Visitors' Bureaus, and Downtown Development Authorities, as well as the Mackinac Bridge Authority and the Michigan Department of Transportation.

"Truly it takes the entire community to protect the vast and inspiring resource of the deep, dark night sky that we enjoy in the Straits area," Adams said.

The Headlands became the 6th International Dark Sky Park in the U.S. and the 9th in the world in May 2011, and each month free programs are held for the public. The park is located about 2 miles west of downtown Mackinaw City.