Every August, the French Association of Astronomy organises the Nuites des Etoiles – “The Starry Nights”. It is an initiative that takes place across the whole of France and encourages enthusiasts to get involved with star gazing and takes place usually during the first week to mid August.
The event was first held in 1991 in France and its popularity has increased each year with more and more events being held around the country – more than 400 activities planned each year.
The aim of the Nuits des Etoiles is to share the knowledge of the sky with everyone and planetariums, observatories, the Paris Science Museum and groups of astronomers in France hold free observation sessions, conferences, exhibitions and workshops to allow everyone to understand the night sky and its myriad constellations and planets.
The date is very specifically chosen – each summer Earth crosses the path of a group of meteors – the Perseids, causing a spectacular meteor shower. They are called the Perseids because they appear to come from the direction of the constellation Perseus. During this time the comet Swift-Tuttle crosses the Earth and leaves a trail of cosmic dust; the debris ejected by the comet as it goes on its 130 year orbit enters the earth’s atmosphere at a breakneck speed. The particles are warmed and then consumed and from the Earth we see these shooting stars light up the sky. The phenomenon is sometimes called the “Tears of St Lawrence” as 10th August, normally during the peak of the event but not always, is the date of the martyrdom of the Saint.
The shower is visible for about a month from mid July with the zenith being reached in August – the nights chosen for the Nuits des Etoiles events . During this time the rate of meteors reaches 60 or more per hour. The shooting stars can be seen across the sky, but because of the path of Swift-Tuttle’s orbit, Perseids are primarily visible in the northern hemisphere.
You can check out what’s on in your area at www.afastronomie.fr/les-nuits-des-etoiles