Arguably the most famous meteor shower is about to peak this weekend so get your blankets ready: it is star gazing time. The Perseid shower is so well known because it is a large scale meteor shower that is conveniently during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer. Unfortunately, this year the Moon is pretty bright and will be washing out a lot of meteors but if there was a shower to stand up to the brightness of the Moon it is this one!
WHEN is it?
The Perseids technically started July 17th and last until August 24th. However, the Perseids are famous for their strong peak which takes place on the mornings of August 12th and 13th this year. You can spot the most Perseids during the predawn hours but if you are not an early riser you can also try anytime after midnight. The moon will be up during this whole viewing time so unfortunately I don’t have any advice on avoiding it. Maybe blow it up? kidding….
WHERE should you look?
If you are able to watch the shower during the predawn hours from 3:00 am to twilight, you don’t need to worry about this part as the constellation will be overhead. But if you are like me and rather check out showers during more reasonable times, you will need to know the general direction the meteors are radiating from. The Perseids, like many other meteor showers, are named after the constellation they originate from: Perseus (this means if you were to trace every streak backwards they would all point towards this constellation). So from about midnight to 3:00 am it will be helpful to know in which direction of the sky to look. Now if you are not that confident with constellations, you can use an app (like the one I suggested). Search for the constellation Perseus and use the app to figure out where the constellation is. You can even figure out when it rises and sets. If you use the app I do, make sure you turn on ‘sky object trajectories’ and use that as a guide for where the star (or constellation) will be at a certain time. It should be on automatically but in case it is not, it is the button on the upper right of the settings (as shown on the right). Remember to look around; these meteors don’t stay too close to their radiant point and it can get frustrating focusing on one place for too long. You can also try to find earthgrazers in the early hours of the shower which look like stones skipping across the horizon.
WHAT are the meteors made of?
Similar to most meteor showers, the Perseid meteors are remnants of a comet that has crossed Earth’s path. These remnants are from comet Swift-Tuttle, a comet that only makes its way by us once every 133 years. The remnants generally stay in the same location of Earth’s orbit, so Earth comes crashing into these remnants every year; however, this year Jupiter gave them a little nudge pushing some of them more directly into Earth’s orbit. This is what is causing the exceptionally large number of Perseids during the outburst. Jupiter is such a massive planet that it isn’t uncommon for its gravity to influence comets, asteroids, and satellites orbits by pushing and pulling them in one direction or another.
If the weather isn’t looking great or you are not able to go outside, Slooh has a live stream that starts at 8:00 pm EDT on August 12th (00:00 GMT 13/8); the great thing about Slooh is that they have multiple telescopes in different parts of the world so weather isn’t much of an issue and they have narrated portions so you can learn about the shower from the experts themselves while searching for meteors.