Zip! Zoom! Wow! Perseid meteors to dart through our heavens this weekend

August 8, 2013

Procuring providence this weekend, hope that clear night skies part the predicted thunderstorms in time to provide a view of the Perseid meteors – a shower that peaks this Sunday night into Monday.

Since late July, the percolating Perseids have sporadically darted through our heavens. But a variety of astronomical organizations concur that this Sunday night, Monday morning and possibly Monday night may be prime time for this famous, annual shower.

To enjoy these meteors, you don’t need heavy equipment. Simply go outside late on Sunday night, find a dark sky location (for example, no street lights) and look up for a little while. “Relax, be patient and let your eyes adapt to the dark,” says Bob Naeye, editor-in-chief of Sky and Telescope magazine.

On Earth’s annual trip around the sun, our pale blue planet confronts many cosmic the dusty trails of comets-gone-by. Meteors are caused by specks of leftover comet dust. Earth runs into these trails and the dirt flecks strike our atmosphere and light up. Naeye and his brilliant Sky and Telescope crew explain that the meteoric dust resemble Grape Nuts cereal, since they are a “close match to the estimated size, color and texture of typical meteor-shower particles.”

This year’s Perseid watchers need not worry about contending with the moon. In Washington on Sunday night, the new moon – on the verge of becoming a first quarter moon – sets in the west around 10:30 p.m. Just a bit later, the constellation Perseus rises in the northeastern heavens. Since the shooting stars appear to emanate to Perseus, we get the shower name Perseids.

Graphic courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine
Graphic courtesy of Sky & Telescope magazine

Expect to see a higher number of shooting stars, say about 90 each hour at peak, according to the Observer’s Handbook 2013, by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. You won’t see all 90 each hour – not even close. But if you persevere, you’ll have a handsome count.

With the shower hitting a predicted peak in the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 12, says Sky and Telescope, this year’s sky gazers likely might enjoy extra innings of meteor watching on Monday night.

Comet Swift-Tuttle, the dirty snowball meteoric parent, looms large. The nucleus is about 16 miles in diameter – that’s about the distance from Tysons Corner to Rockville. Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office says, “Most other comets are much smaller, with nuclei only a few kilometers across. As a result, Comet Swift-Tuttle produces a large number of meteoroids, many of which are large enough to produce fireballs.”

NASA has produced a short video about the possible Perseid fireballs. Find it here:

Between 2008 and this year’s shower, the Perseid’s shooting stars have produced a hefty number of fireballs – extremely bright and long-lasting streaks – more than any other shower. Sky watchers have enjoyed 568 Perseid fireballs since 2008, while the Geminis have created 426 fireballs and the Orionids 319, according to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.

Graphic courtesy of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Graphic courtesy of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center

Last year was the 150th anniversary Comet Swift-Tuttle’s discovery and this cosmic body has a Washington connection. While the United States was in the throes of the Civil War, astronomer Horace P. Tuttle found the comet July 19, 1862, from the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. He joined the Union Army a short while later and then became an astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory here. Tuttle died in 1923 and is buried – in an unmarked grave – at Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church. The other discoverer, astronomer Lewis Swift, made his finding on July 16, 1862, from Marathon, N.Y.

Sky and Telescope offers a free guide called “Shooting Stars.”

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