Next week, shooting stars will be lighting the night sky as one of the year’s best meteor showers takes place. In the early morning hours of August 12, the Perseids meteor shower will be at its peak. Visible for the past 2000 years, this annual event was first recorded in the Far East.
What are meteors?
More commonly known as “falling stars,” meteors are actually tiny bits of comet dust that fall into the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds of up to 158,000 miles per hour. Friction with air molecules heats these small specks of space rock – most smaller than a grain of rice – to incandescence, resulting in streaks of light as they quickly disintegrate approximately 50 miles above our heads.
What causes a meteor shower?
The Comet Swift-Tuttle is the source of the Perseids. Comets shed icy, dusty debris on their orbit around the Sun. While Swift-Tuttle is currently well beyond the orbit of Uranus, its debris trail extends all the way back to Earth. When the Earth travels through this 1,000-year-old debris field on its annual trip around the Sun, we see a meteor shower. The Perseids meteor shower is named for the constellation Perseus, which is its radiant – the point in the sky from which the meteors appear to fall.
Earthgrazers – meteors that begin low when the radiant is at the horizon and travel horizontally overhead instead of falling – will be visible beginning around 9:00 pm on August 11, but the prime viewing time for these fast and bright Perseids will be after 2:00 am on August 12 when the Moon sets. In dark areas, it may be possible to see over 100 Perseids each hour in the northeast sky until dawn. The West Coast of North America and Eastern Asia are expected to see an exceptionally good show this year.
So pack a cooler with drinks and snacks, head to the countryside or a state park where it is dark, pull out the blanket or lawn chairs, and enjoy the spectacular show!