If you happen to be up on a night between August 11 – 13, there is a good chance you might get a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower. Unfortunately, although the Perseid meteor shower is typically considered to be one of the best of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, it might be a little more difficult to observe this year during its peak because it will occur at the same time as the Super Sturgeon Moon, an exceptionally large full moon. It’s still worth a try though.
Most people are familiar with the Perseids because they are the most visible meteor shower. The Perseid shower has an appearance window of July 14 to September 1, but the best time to see them is between August 11 and 13.
While the peak of activity for most meteor showers occurs on a single night, the height for the Perseids extends over a relatively long period of time compared to other showers. So if the sky is cloudy on the busiest night, at least you know you can try again the next. At the pinnacle of the Perseid meteor shower, as many as 100 meteors per hour may be visible virtually in all directions of the sky.
Unfortunately, due to the full moon, stargazers won’t be as privy to the normal bevy of meteors as prior Perseid showers.
“Sadly, this year’s Perseids peak will see the worst possible circumstances for spotters,” NASA astronomer Bill Cooke said in a post. “Most of us in North America would normally see 50 or 60 meteors per hour,” he said, “But this year, during the normal peak, the full Moon will reduce that to 10-20 per hour at best.”
However, there are ways to ensure you can see as many as possible. NASA recommends giving your eyes at least 45 minutes to adjust to the night sky. Make sure you are away from as much light pollution as possible. Those living in the United States have generally found Joshua Tree National Park and Northwestern Nevada’s Massacre Rim International Dark Sky Sanctuary as great areas due to both the lack of light pollution and cloud-free skies.
What are the Perseids?
The name of a meteor shower comes from the constellation that is believed to be the source of the shower’s radiant. The radiant is the location from which the meteors appear to originate; if you trace a line backward along the path of the meteors, you will find that all of the lines converge on the same point. This is an effect of the Earth hurtling through the comet debris at a high rate of speed, which means that when you observe a meteor shower, you are witnessing direct evidence of our planet’s orbit around the Sun.
Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which is responsible for this amazing light show, was last in the solar system in 1992 and won’t be back until 2126. Some comets, such as Halley’s, cause more than one meteor shower, but 109P/Swift-Tuttle only causes one.
So what is a meteor exactly?
When dust and rocks the size of sand grains (aka meteoroids) collide with the Earth’s upper atmosphere at extremely high speeds — 133,200 mph (214,360 kph) for the Perseids — they are transformed into meteors, also known as shooting stars, which appear as bright streaks of light in the sky.
These minuscule particles emit brilliant striations of light, which can be observed from the ground at night. In general, the meteor will be brighter if the piece of space dust that it is formed from is larger. Because space is so full of dust, even on an ordinary night from a dark location, it is possible to see up to 10 meteors per hour.
The Earth experiences meteor showers when it travels through the debris left behind by a comet or an asteroid. When the Earth completes another revolution in its orbit and travels back through the debris field, they appear again at roughly the same time every year.
The Geminid meteor shower, which peaks in the middle of December, and the Perseid meteor shower are two of the best showers that occur throughout the year. Since the Perseid meteor shower occurs during the summer in the northern hemisphere, it typically receives more attention from the media. However, the Geminids are known to produce a greater number of meteors.
Your eyes, some patience, and a night sky that is mostly cloud-free are all you need to observe a meteor shower. Since those in the Northern Hemisphere are on the leading side of the Earth at that time, the best time to see a meteor shower is typically between the hours of midnight and pre-dawn.
It is not necessary to look directly in the spot of the radiant; in fact, meteors that are located further away will appear to be of a longer duration. It is commonly stated that an ideal location to look is 45 degrees away from the radiant; however, the most important factor is getting to a dark location away from city lights, allowing your eyes to adjust for several minutes and looking at the darkest patch of sky you can find.
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