What is the Perseid Meteor Shower?
It is one of nature’s best and most amazing shows. The Perseid meteor show is typically the most visible meteor shower for northern observers, and best of all, you can plan ahead and watch the impressive display!
What is a meteor?
You’ll hear a few similar terms: meteor, meteoroid, and meteorite. A meteor is a bright, but brief, streak of light in the sky caused by a meteoroid as it enters the atmosphere. Popular names for meteors are ‘shooting star’ or ‘falling star’. A meteoroid is a small particle of dust or rock that enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and burns up. A meteorite is a meteoroid that survives its trip through the atmosphere and reaches the surface of the Earth.
When is the best time to view the Perseid Shower?
This year the peak of the shower will be late in the evening of August 11th, to dawn of August 12th. At the peak of the shower, you may see up to around 50 meteors per hour! On the peak night of this shower, the Moon will be in its last (third) quarter and close to the radiant, which will wash out the fainter meteors in the shower and reduce visibility.
The meteor shower can be witnessed on other days too; in fact, you may see meteors from anywhere beginning on July 17th to August 24th. Keep in mind that pre-dawn hours are usually best.
Cool! Where should I look to see them?
Look north-northeast for the constellation Perseus, just under and to the left of the “W” of Cassiopeia. You will notice that the meteors tend to fly away from a common point in the sky, similar to how fireworks originate from a common point. This is called the radiant. This meteor shower gets its name because its radiant lies within the Perseus constellation.
Do I need any special instruments, like a telescope, to view the shower?
The best part about these meteor showers is that all you need is yourself! The best viewing sites are dark areas – try to avoid light pollution from buildings and streets. Try to be north of any cities to keep the light pollution focused behind you. To make your viewing more fun bring along a comfortable chair or blanket, something to help keep you warm, some drinks and snacks, and perhaps some company to point out meteors you might have otherwise missed!
What causes the meteor shower? Why is it so predictable?
Meteor showers occur when the Earth’s orbit is crossed by the orbit and debris of a comet. A comet is basically a giant snowball comprised of dust, gravel, and ice. Comets will actually start to ‘melt’ as they approach the Sun, and bits of debris will begin to fling off. Every year from the end of July until the end of August, Earth goes through the debris trail of comet Swift-Tuttle. Earth’s atmosphere will be pelted with bits of comet dust about the size of a pebble (1mm to 1cm), traveling at about 212,000 km/hr.!
The Perseid meteor shower is caused by the comet Swift-Tuttle, a comet that orbits the Sun once every 133 years. Each time it completes one orbit, it “refreshes” the dust left in its wake that are responsible for the meteor showers. The last time Swift-Tuttle came through the solar system was in 1992. 26 km in diameter, this comet is often called “the single most dangerous object known to humanity”. The reason for that is because it is the largest object in the solar system that repeatedly has a close approach to the Earth.
Discovered independently on 16 July, 1862 by Lewis Swift and on 19 July, 1862 by Horace Parnell Tuttle, comet Swift-Tuttle is responsible for one of the most reliable and beautiful natural events that we can bear witness to every year!