A shooting star is a small, rapidly moving meteor burning up on entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The annual Perseid meteor shower is a phenomenon that occurs every August for us lucky folks living in the Northern Hemisphere. This meteor shower is caused when the Earth moves through the material trail of the Comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the Sun. As the debris hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns up, creating white-hot streaks in the sky.
Creating natural fireworks that have humbled humans for eons, the glittering trail of debris zooms across our skies at 37 miles per second, each just about the size of a grain of sand. It’s the friction of their speed hitting our atmosphere that makes them visible to our naked eyes.
This year, as in every year throughout July and August, the meteors will emanate from the star cluster named Perseus in the northeastern sky. But the peak of the shower will occur from August 12th through the 14th, with the best viewing conditions after midnight and before dawn.
During normal years, there are approximately 80 meteors per hour visible, but this year, due to a phenomenon called an “Outburst,” we might see 150 to 200 meteors per hour. The reason for this according to NASA meteor expert Bill Cook, “This year, their rates will double, because we’re running into more material left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle.”
Cook continues, “Earth is passing through a particularly dense clump of debris this year — the source of the outburst — caused by the influence of Jupiter’s gravity on Swift-Tuttle’s trail. The number of meteors is increasing as Earth penetrates the heart of the debris, and it will diminish again once it passes through (after the peak).”
According to Cook, the moon will be full six days after the meteor shower’s peak, which might wash out the vivid streaks across the sky. So it might be a good idea to look earlier on, before the peak, to see the brightest streaks and fireballs, and to go to the darkest location you can. All of the meteors will appear to stream away from the constellation Perseus — that apparent source is called the shower’s radiant — but will materialize all across the sky.
Cook also suggests that you don’t need a telescope to see the meteors. In fact, because telescopes narrow your field of view, it’s much easier to watch a meteor shower with the naked eye, just looking up at the entire sky.
It will take about a half an hour in the dark for your eyes to adjust, and Cook suggests that you try to spend a little time before hand outdoors, taking in the views so your vision adjusts.
Having personally experienced the ridiculously amazing Leonid Meteor shower from the heart of Olympic State Park in Washington State back in 2001, I’m making plans now to gather my friends and head out of town and into the countryside, to a large open field, with blankets, some snacks for the munchies and of course a tasty Pinot Blanc so we’re all set to enjoy one of nature’s biggest fireworks displays. I hope you will make an effort to see this event as well. You will remember it for the rest of your life!
The Perseid Meteor showers will appear most clearly in the Northern Hemisphere after 10 p.m. local time, and the meteor rate will increase each night all the way until dawn, again with the peak showers on August 12 – 14, 2016.
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on title to order.
David Levy’s Guide to Observing Meteor Showers
by David Levy
Voyagers From Space: Meteors and meteorites
by Patricia Lauber
Comets, Meteors and Asteroids
by DK Publishing and Jon Man
Our Stone-Pelted Planet
by H.H. Nininger
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