This Wednesday evening and Thursday morning there will be one of the best meteor showers you and your family can see.
This is a great year for the Perseid meteor shower, because it is happening during the phase of the Moon called New Moon (which is when the moon is absent from the sky). So there will be no moonlight to interfere with seeing the faint “shooting stars” of the meteor shower.
The best night is the evening of Wed, Aug. 12 and morning of Thur., Aug. 13, although there could be significantly more meteors on the night before and the night after too. Meteors (which have nothing to do with stars) are pieces of cosmic dust and dirt hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed and making a flash of light.
The peak of the shower is predicted to happen around 1 am PDT Aug. 13th, which means that after it gets dark on Aug. 12th, there should already a good number of meteors to watch for.
Here are a few tips for best viewing:
8 HINTS FOR TAKING A METEOR SHOWER
1. Get away from city lights and find a location that’s relatively dark
2. If it’s significantly foggy or cloudy, you’re out of luck
3. Your location should allow you to see as much of the dome of the sky as possible
4. Allow time for your eyes to get adapted to the dark (at least 10 -15 minutes)
5. Don’t use a telescope or binoculars – they restrict your view (so you don’t have to be part of the 1% with fancy equipment to see it; this is a show for the 99%!)
6. Dress warm – it can get cooler at night even in August
7. Be patient (it’s not fireworks): keep looking up & around & you’ll see flashes of light
8. Take someone with you with whom you like to spend time in the dark!
The Perseid meteors are cosmic “garbage” (dust and dirt clumps) left over from a regularly returning comet, called Swift-Tuttle (after the two astronomers who first discovered it). The comet itself returns to the inner solar system every 130 years; it was last here in 1992. During each pass it leaves dirt and dust behind and it is this long dirt and dust stream that we encounter every August. Some experts are predicting we might briefly encounter an especially crowded part of the debris stream this time.
Each flash you see is a bit of material from the comet hitting the Earth’s atmosphere and getting heated up (and heating up the air around it) as it speeds through our thick atmosphere. Both the superheated dust and dirt and the heated air contribute to the visible light we observe. Since comets are left-overs from the early days of our solar system, you can tell yourself (or your kids) that each flash of light is the “last gasp” of cosmic material that formed some 5 billion years ago.
[Note: image from Mike Hanley, American Meteor Society]