The Perseid meteor shower is often the best of the annual displays of falling stars. And this year’s display is happening right now!
The Perseid meteor shower lights up nighttime skies every year, in the second week of August. This time around, the best nights for these shower are likely to be Tuesday through Thursday, August 11–13.
Like most of the periodic meteor showers, the annual Perseid display occurs when the Earth, orbiting the Sun, passes their a trail of debris left behind by the passing of a comet.
“When comets come around the Sun, the dust they emit gradually spreads into a dusty trail around their orbits. Every year the Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere where they disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky,” NASA officials describe.
The untidy interloper in this case is Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862 by two independent astronomers, Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, this dirty snowball orbits the Sun once every 133 years. The comet made its last close approach of the Sun in 1992, and will do so again in 2125. This is a large comet, sporting a nucleus (main body) measuring 16 miles in diameter, significantly larger than the object that wiped out the dinosaurs.
Where Did This Mess Come From?
When watching falling stars, the Moon can often make it difficult to see dimmer flashes of light. Unfortunately, the Moon is at the worst possible position this week for people wishing to view the meteor shower.
As is common with meteor showers, the Perseids will be seen coming from the east. Sure enough, the Moon — now three-quarters full — will also be shining in the east, after 1 am.
However — the Perseids are often the brightest of all the periodic meteor showers. Even with moonlight washing out some meteors, it is still very possible that skygazers may witness 40 or 50 shooting stars every hour — nearly one every minute. The greatest number of shooting stars will fall after midnight Standard Time (1 am Daylight Savings Time), but that is also the time when the Moon will be its brightest.
Some meteors, not associated with the annual Perseid display, are also likely to be seen this week.
“While observing this month, not all of the meteors you’ll see belong to the Perseid meteor shower. Some are sporadic background meteors. And some are from other weaker showers also active right now, including the Alpha Capricornids, the Southern Delta Aquariids, and the Kappa Cygnids,” Emily Clay writes for NASA.
I Wanna See! I Wanna See!
Viewing meteor showers — especially the summertime Perseids — is a simple, fun activity that can be enjoyed by families anywhere.
To get the most from exploring the Perseids, viewers should head to a place under dark skies, away from city lights. Look for a low horizon to the east, especially earlier in the night. Although the Perseids are known for displays around the sky, the center of the outburst will still be toward the eastern horizon.
One of the easiest constellations to recognize, Cassiopeia, will be seen in the northeastern sky, resembling the letter “W.” Just beneath that is the Constellation Perseus, the epicenter of this annual display.
One option to help see meteors is to go outside in the early night — around 10 or 11 pm. There won’t be as many shooting stars as there will be before dawn, but the Moon will still be hidden by the horizon, making for darker skies. Areas offering low horizons toward the east, and dark skies are ideal.
Blocking out moonlight by standing in the shadow of a large tree, rock, or building can also make it easier to see falling stars as they happen. It’s also a good idea to avoid looking at phones while observing, in order to preserve night vision. To look for objects in the dark, it’s best to use a red light, which do not affect night viewing.
Binoculars and telescopes are nearly useless for viewing shooting stars — their positions are too unpredictable and their lifetimes too short. However, a camera or phone set up for a long exposures (on a steady mount) can often produce fabulous records of shooting stars blazing across the sky.
Meteor showers are often unpredictable, and the number of shooting stars seen often rises and falls over the course of a night. It’s bet to give at least an hour of viewing time, both to provide enough time for eyes to fully adjust to the dark, and to allow for peaks and lulls in the celestial display.
“Once I blazed across the sky, Leaving trails of flame;
I fell to earth, and here I lie — Who’ll help me up again? — A shooting star”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
If weather does not cooperate, it is still possible to view the Perseid meteor shower via a live camera sponsored by NASA. The space agency will broadcast the display live from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, from 8 pm CDT on August 11 to sunrise on August 12 on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page.
Although they may look large, most meteors are smaller than apple seeds, and they completely burn up as they pass through our atmosphere. Larger pieces of rock and metal which survive the journey fall to Earth as meteorites.
Meteor showers are among the easiest of all celestial views to take in for amateur stargazers, and the Perseid display can often be the most impressive of all the annual shows. If you can, make sure to take in the display.
James Maynard is the founder and publisher of The Cosmic Companion. He is a New England native turned desert rat in Tucson, where he lives with his lovely wife, Nicole, and Max the Cat.
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