Like shooting stars? If so, mark your calendar for August 11-12th, when the annual Perseid Meteor Shower (pronounced per-SEE-id), will be at its peak. It’s considered one of the best meteor showers of the year! What’s in store for 2020? Read on!
What Is the Perseid Meteor Shower?
The Perseid Meteor Shower is an annual shower whose name derives from the constellation of Perseus, from which it appears to emanate. Almost all meteors seen on these nights will be members of the Perseid stream; tiny bits of space debris that were shed by the Comet Swift-Tuttle over past centuries. Each meteoroid slams into Earth’s upper atmosphere at 37 miles per second, creating an incandescent trail of shocked, ionized air. It’s this hot trail, not the tiny meteoroid itself, that we see.
At the shower’s maximum, these meteors seem to diverge from a small area in northern Perseus. This is so far north that it’s already above the northeast horizon for most of the country when darkness falls. Hence some Perseids are seen as early as 9 or 10 o’clock. But only after midnight, when the radiant is high in the sky and we have been turned by the Earth onto its forward-moving side, do their numbers really begin to increase. Anyone at mid-northern latitudes who can escape bright city lights might see the oft-advertised 60–90 meteors each hour that makes this shower so gratifying.
See Some of the Best Shooting Stars
Another reason the Perseids are popular: they are swift, bright and colorful. Most are in the range of magnitude +2 to +2½. Fainter meteors are white or yellow; brighter ones are bluish-green. About one-third, including all the brightest, leave luminous trains, a few of which may be spectacular, persisting for many seconds. A few might end in flares or bursts resembling a strobe, capable of casting shadows.
How To Watch The Perseid Meteor Shower
No two persons prepare for a meteor vigil the same way. Expect the effective low temperature to be far below what local weathercasters predict. When you sit quite still, close to the rapidly cooling ground, and the air is damp, you can become very chilled. It helps to have had a late afternoon nap. A reclining lawn chair, heavy blankets, sleeping bags, and pillows are all essential equipment. Some food and non-alcoholic drink will help keep you comfortable. It also helps to have a companion to help you watch the sky (“shower” with a friend?).
And if the peak night is cloudy, don’t fret—the Perseids can be seen on multiple nights. Rates are about half to one-quarter of the peak for one or two nights before and after. In fact, the first forerunners of the shower have been known to show up as early as July 20th, and the last stragglers have been seen as late as August 24th.
What’s In Store For 2020?
Peak activity for the Perseids in 2020 is expected on the morning of August 12th, one day after the last-quarter Moon. The Moon’s glare will be very troublesome during the second week of August. Except for the hampering effect of moonlight, observers would notice a crescendo in hourly rates of 45 to 90 meteors per hour as August 12th draws near. Most of these “shooting stars” would be identifiable as Perseids because their paths, extended backward along the line of flight, would intersect near a point on the border between Perseus and the “W” of Cassiopeia. This constellation lies low in the northeast around 10 in the evening but climbs almost overhead by the first light of dawn.
Better viewing conditions will come a few mornings after the 12th when predawn skies are darker, but by then the shower will be much diminished.
As August progresses, with both the Moon and the Perseids on the wane, activity will give way to other showers. The Kappa Cygnid display will peak between August 18th and 20th. Although this shower produces only a handful of meteors each hour, some of them are flaring fireballs. Best viewing is in the early evening, when the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan is nearly overhead. Unlike many other showers, the Kappa Cygnids are not associated with any known comet.
Watch and listen to the author of this blog give an overview on the Perseids!