Perseid Meteor Show To Peak later this week

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Tuesday, August 9, 2016, 8:19 am
Shannon Schmoll, John French

There are several regular meteor shows that happen every year. There are the Leonids, Orionids, Lyrids, and the Geminids to name a few of the better known ones. These are all named after the constellations the meteors appear to originate from in the sky. This Thursday night and into morning of Friday, we will see the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, named for the constellation Perseus. It is one of the best meteor showers every year.


Meteor showers are caused by debris left by comet tails. Comets usually have extremely elongated elliptical orbits that bring them close to the sun. If a comet crosses Earth’s orbit, we will move through that debris and pick it up like a bug on a windshield. As we do that, the debris falls through our atmosphere and burns up before hitting the ground. We see it as a beautiful streak of light. Because this material is in a particular point in our orbit, we always reach it at the same time of year.

The Perseids are caused by debris left by the comet 109/P Swift-Tuttle. Its orbit takes it well past Pluto most of the time. However, every 133 years it comes to the inner solar, leaving debris in its wake. The last visit of this comet was in 1992 and we can expect it again in 2126. We reach the debris field in late July and stay through the end of August every year. However, we hit the peak around August 12 each year, give or take a couple of days.


This year’s Perseids are expected to be a bit better than usual. The cometary debris is in constant orbit around the sun and does pass by other planets along the way. As planets go around their orbits, they can also pass by the material. Jupiter does not pass through the Swift-Tuttle debris, but does pass close enough occasionally to perturb the debris a bit. Jupiter passed close to the debris in its orbit in 2014. That debris was nudged enough that now when it has reached Earth orbit, it is closer than usual resulting in a stronger meteor shower.


The Perseids will be seen all around the world, but for best viewing conditions, get away from any city lights you can! The more light pollution you have, the harder it will be to see the quick streaks of lights from the meteors. There are predictions of there being upwards of 200 meteors per hour falling through our sky. Keep in mind that that number is only under the most ideal situations that never occur in reality, and includes the faintest meteors that humans would not be able to see with the naked eye. So get a comfy chair, sit back, and look up. You are most likely to see a handful of the brightest per hour.

This year the peak is also coinciding with a rather bright waxing gibbous moon, unfortunately. This will provide light pollution you can’t just drive away from. However, Friday morning, the moon sets at 1:32 a.m. which will give about 3 hours of viewing time with a completely dark sky before astronomical twilight. Be sure to also give yourself about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust.


The next meteor shower will be the Orionids, between early October and mid-November. They will peak from the night of October 21st into the morning of the 22nd. It will not be nearly as impressive as Perseids, with only 20-25 per hour expected in the most ideal conditions. The Geminids will peak on December 14th around midnight and will offer up more meteors to see, with 120 expected in, again, those most ideal conditions. 


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