Not only do we get fireworks on the Fourth of July, we get nature’s own fireworks in mid August. Check out the Perseid (pronounced PURR-see-id) meteor shower on the night of August 11-12.
While the Perseids loiter around our heavens from July 25 through Aug. 20, these shooting stars peak this weekend. You can start looking up late Saturday night and if you are lucky, you’ll observe a handful of meteors dart across the cosmos. Likely, you’ll see more after midnight – in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The International Meteor Organization and The Observer’s Handbook 2012 explains that the zenithal hourly rate is about 90 to 100 meteors each hour. Although you’ll never see that many, be happy with a few. The shower allegedly peaks Sunday at noon Universal Time, which is 8 a.m. Eastern Time. That’s well after the sunrise. So Saturday night and Sunday night could be your best chances.
Slightly dampening your observations after midnight, the waning moon rises in the east around 1:30 a.m. (Sunday morning, Aug. 12). Hey, don’t fret, it’s just a crescent, it shouldn’t be too bothersome.
This shower appears to emanate from the Perseus constellation – hence the name Perseid meteors. Like driving through a snowstorm with high beams, that’s how these meteors will generally look. A short, time-lapse video illustrates the concept on YouTube
Meteors are nothing but a trail of cosmic dust left by comets. On its annual tour around the sun, Earth smacks into these trails. The debris strikes our atmosphere, burns brightly and we see the resulting streaks. Comet Swift-Tuttle leaves the trail that causes the Perseid meteors, which is a “middle-age stream, still fairly compact …” says author Neil Bone in his book “Meteors.”
Bone explains that these bits of dust are small, like the size of a grain of sand or instant coffee granules. These tiny pieces have little structural integrity and burn easily when they strike our upper atmosphere.
A special year: It’s the sesquicentennial of Comet Swift-Tuttle’s discovery. Early during in the Civil War, two men – hundreds of miles apart – saw the apparition in July 1862, notes astronomer David H. Levy. Astronomer Lewis Swift found it July 16, 1862 from Marathon, N.Y., about 25 miles north of Binghamton, N.Y. Because of Marathon’s thin population, the dark heavens there remain a sky gazer’s dream today.
Meanwhile, astronomer Horace P. Tuttle saw the comet July 19, 1862 from the Harvard College Observatory, Cambridge, Mass., just prior to joining the Union Army. (Later in his career, Tuttle joined the U.S. Naval Observatory. He died in 1923 and he’s buried in an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church, Va.)
* The Observer’s Handbook 2012, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada;
* David H. Levy, “David Levy’s Guide to Observing Meteor Showers,” Cambridge University Press; and
* Neil Bone, “Meteors,” Sky Publishing Corp.