The Perseid Meteor Shower
August 10, 2016

The annual Perseid Meteor shower peaks Thursday night and lasts through Friday morning.  If you want to take in the show you’ll want to stay up late or wake up extra early.

Perseid

In perfect conditions stargazers can see 60 to 90 “shooting stars” per hour.  However, this year  European countries may be able to see up to 200 meteors per hour.  You can thank the planet Jupiter.  Every twelve years Jupiter passes through the comet’s orbit.  This occurred in 2014.  The giant planet’s gravity moved the particles towards the Earth.  Those particles arrive Thursday night in Europe but that is during the day in the United States so the west coast will miss out on this enhanced activity.  The east coast of the U.S. will get a little better show than most years.

Meteors

Perseids look like Grape Nuts Cereal

These particles, or meteors, are about the size, shape and color of Grape Nuts Cereal. These tiny pieces of debris slam the top of the Earth’s atmosphere 80 miles up.  Each Perseid hits the atmosphere at 37 miles per second, creating a hot streak of superheated air that you see on the ground as a streak of light.  They burn up, never reaching the surface of the Earth.  It is inaccurate to call them “shooting stars” because they are bits of rubble that were shed in 1479 by the Comet Swift-Tuttle.  This stream of Perseids orbit the Sun and every August the Earth passes through the stream.

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Any kind of light will hinder viewing of the meteor shower.  And this includes light from the moon.  The first-quarter phase moon will set around 12:30 AM PDT Friday so peak viewing will be between 1:00 and 5:30 AM Friday.  You don’t need any special equipment, simply go outside with an open view and away from as many city lights as possible.  These include street lights and house lights.  Looking northeast is a good idea but as the night goes on, if the skies are clear, you won’t miss a thing by looking straight up. Lay down on a blanket or a lawn chair is comfortable too.  If you are in a big city with a lot of lights you can still see the show by clicking this site: Bareket Observatory in Israel.  The astronomers invite you to join them August 11th beginning at 19:00 UT (12 PM PDT).

The Perseids get their name because the meteor showers “radiant” the perspective point of origin is the constellation Perseus.

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Perseid Meteor Shower
August 10, 2015

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Perseid in 2012, Photo by David Kingham, Wyoming

If you are an early riser or like to stay up really late, this is your week.  Beginning Tuesday morning you may be able to see as many as 50 meteors shooting through the sky.  It’s the annual Perseid Meteor Shower, and this year will be good.  One of the key factors is a dark sky and the waning crescent moon doesn’t come up until sunrise, so there will not be any additional light diminishing the view.

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To see the show, you need to be as far away as possible from the city lights.  The Perseids will come into view beginning at midnight and last through 5 a.m. Tuesday through Friday, and you want to look northeast.  Tracing the paths of the meteors backward, you’ll find that they originate in front of the constellation Perseus.   If you have to pick a day, the best show should be Thursday morning before sunrise. That is the day of the new moon and the sky will be at its darkest.

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It takes your eyes 20 minutes to adjust to the night sky, so be patient if you don’t see anything right away.  You should give yourself at least an hour to watch.  Every year at this time our planet crosses the orbital path of the comet Swift-Tuttle.  The debris from this comet slams into our atmosphere at 130,000 mph and burns up creating tails of ionized gas.  What most people don’t know is these meteors are about the size of Grape Nuts cereal, and they are about the same color and texture too (see photo below).  It’s incredible to think that a meteor this bright comes from something this small.  None of these reach Earth’s surface, but sometimes a broken off piece of an asteroid will hit the Earth.  When that happens it is called a meteorite.

Meteors