Saturday, August 8, 2015

Impressive Perseid Meteor Shower to Light Up Summer Skies Next Week

Perseid shooting star near the Pleiades over Woodingdean, Sussex, on the early morning of the 13th August, 2013. Credit: Darren Baskill.

The evening of Wednesday Aug. 12 into the morning of Thursday Aug. 13 sees the annual maximum of the Perseid meteor shower. This year, a new moon makes prospects for watching this natural firework display particularly good. Meteors (popularly known as 'shooting stars') are the result of small particles, some as small as a grain of sand, entering the Earth's atmosphere at high speed. The tail of the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last passed near the Earth in 1992, leaves such debris in the Earth’s path. On entering the atmosphere, these particles heat the air around them, causing the characteristic streak of light seen from the ground. This shower of meteors appears to originate from a single point, called a 'radiant', in the constellation of Perseus, hence the name.

The meteor shower, which tends to build gradually and can produce 50 to 100 meteors per hour, will be active between midnight and dawn and will appear to originate from the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, according to Matthew Benjamin, a planetary scientist and education program manager at CU-Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium.

The shower is active each year from around July 17 to Aug. 24, although for most of that period only a few meteors an hour will be visible. This year, for the first time since 2007, this peak coincides with a new moon on Aug. 14, creating ideal dark sky conditions for meteor-spotting. 

Professor Mark Bailey, Director of Armagh Observatory, said: “The Perseid meteor shower is one of the best and most reliable meteor showers of the year. The French astronomer Jeremie Vaubaillon has also predicted that the Perseids may this year produce an outburst of activity around 7:40 p.m. BST on Aug. 12. Although it is unfortunately still daylight at that time in the UK and Ireland, it is just possible that enhanced rates may persist for a few hours around this time and so be observable soon after dark.”

Unlike many celestial events meteor showers are straightforward to watch, and for most people the best equipment to use is simply the naked eye. Advice from experienced meteor observers is to wrap up well and set up a reclining chair to allow you to look up at the sky in comfort. If possible it also helps to be in a dark place away from artificial light, and to have an unobstructed view of the sky.

“The Perseids are a pretty consistent meteor shower, but it’s the moon that really makes a good or bad show,” said Benjamin. “The moon phase should be quite beneficial to seeing the meteors this year.”

For the best viewpoint, Benjamin advises getting as far away from city lights as possible.

“I would recommend if you want to go out and see the Perseids, make your way into the mountains,” said Benjamin. “Or if you’re in the Denver-Front Range area, get away from the city lights as best you can. Find a real nice dark place that has an eastern view that’s not obscured and doesn’t have a lot of city lights looking to the east.

“This year should be a rather impressive one,” he said. “Some of the forecasts are saying that this is going to be a large burst of meteors so you could see quite a few.”

Although the number of visible meteors is hard to predict accurately, at least one every few minutes can be expected. They mostly appear as fleeting streaks of light lasting less than a second, but the brightest ones leave behind trails of vaporized gases and glowing air molecules that may take a few seconds to fade.

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