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Shooting the stars on Twitter

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 12 August 2009

Twitter and astronomy may not be a likely combination, but last night star gazers and social networkers pooled their skills to bring a spectacular meteor shower to a wider audience.

A meteor shower (picture: Reuters)

The Perseid meteor shower lights up the evening skies across Britain once every year. This time it has been welcomed by what is described as the first global "star party", where images of the event are posted via Twitter by the MeteorWatch group set up the Royal Astronomical Society. See some of the photos here.

There can be up to 80 meteors an hour during the storm and the Newbury astronomical society is planning to tweet live pictures, just as they did when they trained their telescopes on the moon in May. 

Dr Robert Massey from the Royal Astronomical Society said the Twitter initiative had been "fantastically successful".

"I could see literally what seemed like thousands of comments coming in from across the world - people reporting sightings, people posting images, video clips," he told Channel 4 News. "It looks to me like it has been incredibly popular."

He described how the shower was caused by a stream of particles that are left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet.

"If you imagine the tail from a comet - that carries a lot of debris," he said. "If the Earth moves in to that, those bits of debris come into the Earth's atmosphere at very high speed, and when they do that they burn up - that's when you see a meteor. So if have a lot of material you get a shower of meteors."

The meteor shower's peak is last night and tonight, and then it winds down over a couple of weeks.

"It's a great way to promote the science," Dr Massey said. "We are in the international year of astronomy - 400 years after the telescope was first used - and this just demonstrates that it is very much a mass participation activity."

Richard Fleet, president of the society, said: "We realised early on that what people want are images of the night sky, so we used our array of telescopes and cameras to provide a constant stream of pictures which we uploaded straight to Twitter.

"We were amazed at how excited people were about our Twitter Moonwatch; we had thousands of people who had probably never looked through a telescope before asking us questions directly and viewing images."

Robin Scagell, vice-president of the society for popular astronomy, said: "You can look anywhere up in the sky at about a 50-degree angle, or comfortable eye height. South is as good a direction as any. Under good conditions you might see one meteor every few minutes, or one or two a minute if you're lucky."

A quarter moon will mean the sky is not as dark as it could ideally be, but the meteors should still put on an impressive display.

The National Trust has published online guides to seven top Perseid viewing sites, including coastal spots, nature reserves and national parks.

Jo Burgon, head of access and recreation at the Trust, said: "Light pollution from our towns and cities has increased so much in recent years, but head out to the countryside for the perfect place to explore the beauty of the night sky, away from the intrusive glow."

The seven top sites named by the National Trust are Black Down, Sussex, the highest point on the South Downs, Teign Valley in Devon, part of Dartmoor National Park, Penbryn Beach in Wales, Stonehenge Landscape, Wiltshire, the chalk downland of Salisbury Plain surrounding the national monument, Wicken Fen national nature reserve in Cambridgeshire, Mam Tor in Derbyshire, and Friar's Crag in the Lake District, Cumbria.

What a shower: meteor photos on Twitter

Channel 4 News found these images on Twitpic from the below users. Got any more? Let us know, follow us on Twitter: @channel4news

  Credit: @drlucyrogers

Credit: @billpinnellontwitter Credit: @awaisjaffery Credit: @audreylizeth Credit: @parax Credit: @marinsdad

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