Mars has so dominated astronomy news this week, it might be easy to ignore everything else in the sky. I’m here to tell you to put the coffee on for the year’s best meteor shower. Yep, you guessed it – the annual Perseids (PURR-see-ids) are back!
The Perseids stand out in several ways: they happen in August when the weather’s nice, they’re rich with meteors – typically around one a minute – and this year the shower reaches it maximum on Saturday night, when you’re planning on staying up late anyway. Right?
The best viewing starts late Saturday night August 11 with the peak coming just before dawn Sunday morning when Perseus – the constellation from which the shower originates – is high in the northeastern sky.
Although the published rate for the Perseids is around 100 per hour, most of us won’t see that many. That number was determined by dedicated meteor shower watchers observing under ideal conditions. For casual viewing under suburban skies you might see between 30 and 60 per hour. That’s plenty!
Find a place away from glary lights to allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness. That way you’ll see many more meteors. While the Perseids spit out the occasional fireball, most shower members are going to be closer in brightness to the stars of the Big Dipper. Lots leave these cool “smoke” trails called meteor trains. They’re actually tubes of glowing air molecules created as the meteoroid particles charge in the atmosphere from outer space at an average speed of 130,000 miles per hour 50 to 70 miles over our heads.
Since the meteors appear to radiate from Perseus, the higher the constellation rises, the higher the radiant gets and the more meteors will show above your horizon. That’s why those who stay up late will get more goodies. To view the shower all you need are your eyes and a comfortable chair. Set up facing to the east or southeast with Perseus off to your left. Sit back, look up and enjoy.
The Perseids are the left-behind sand, seed and pebble-sized particles from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862, it circles the sun every 120 years. Over millenia, the comet has left a stream of debris along its orbit which the Earth passes through every year in mid-August. The little comet crunchies hit our atmospheric ‘windshield’ like bugs smacking a car’s windshield and vaporize in a flash of light we call a meteor or shooting star.
While shower maximum occurs the morning of August 12, you’ll still see a fair number of meteors Friday night and Sunday night, so don’t pass on the event if your weather’s poor Saturday. Check your local forecast HERE.
Call a friend or coax a family member to stay up late this weekend to enjoy the show. Not only will you see meteors, the space station is making evening passes across North America and the crescent moon will be near the brilliant planets Jupiter and Venus. Speaking of the moon, it rises around 1:30 a.m. local time Sunday morning and should have little effect on the shower, since it’s neither too bright nor too high.