Every August stargazers in the Northern hemisphere eagerly await the Perseid meteor shower. The annual celestial light show is caused by cosmic dust and debris left in Earth’s orbital path by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The comet last entered our solar system in 1992, and won’t be back until 2126, but we still get treated to its glowing remnants of its tail every year.
More than 4.5 billion years ago, comets formed out of the same gas and dust that created Earth and the other planets in our solar system. But unlike planets that orbit the sun on more circular orbits, comets take an elliptical path.
As comets pass into the inner solar system on their journeys, the sun heats them, causing particles of frozen dust to break off into meteors. Viewed from Earth, the flaming dust and debris of meteor showers looks like “fireballs” or “falling stars” streaking across the night sky.
NASA’s Emily Clay says the best time to grab a blanket on the beach, post up on your porch or venture out into the yard to watch this year’s Perseids meteor shower is between 2 a.m. EST and just before dawn. Where you view from doesn’t matter, nor do you need a telescope or any equipment, but being out of reach of any bright lights will optimize the show.
The Sturgeon Moon will still be about 47 percent illuminated in the sky, but according to EarthSky’s Bruce McClure and Deborah Byrd, the Perseids are bright enough to outshine the moon. As long as it’s not cloudy, you should be able to see up to 40 to 50 meteors during the shower’s peak.
If 2 a.m. is too late, any time after moonrise will do, writes CNET’s Eric Mack, your eyes will need about 20 minutes to adjust to the nighttime sky before you’ll start spotting “shooting stars.”
This year the Perseids shower coincides with a chance to see the Milky Way, along with Venus huddling up against the moon as a pre-dawn “Morning Star,” Jamie Carter reports for Forbes. It is also overlapping with another annual shower, the Delta Aquarrids.
Meteors travel at a speed of about 36 miles per second, creating friction that ultimately causes combustion. This combustion produces a trail of light colored by the different compounds in the space dust, writes The Washington Post’s Matthew Cappucci. Rich in sodium, the Perseids seem to have a yellowish hue.
The Perseids are so named after the hero of Greek mythology, Perseus, who was given a place in the stars for his bravery defeating monsters. The Perseus constellation is the meteor shower’s “radiant,” which is the point in the sky where they appear to originate. Looking perpendicular to the radiant will reveal the shooting stars with the longest tails, Cappucci reports.