Jimmy Westlake: A banner year for Perseid meteors
The annual Perseid meteor shower is cranking up this week and is expected to peak just before dawn on Friday morning. The waxing gibbous moon will set around 1 a.m. Friday morning, leaving the sky nice and dark for meteor watching until dawn.
The Perseid meteor shower is the “old faithful” of our annual meteor showers because, under good sky conditions, it dependably produces between 60 and 90 “shooting stars” per hour during its peak. This year, several meteor shower experts have predicted that this rate might briefly double, thanks to a gravitational assist by the giant planet Jupiter.
But don’t just wait for the peak — you can expect to see about 15 to 25 meteors per hour before dawn each morning for a week on either side of the peak, as the shower rises toward and falls from its maximum activity.
In 1862, American astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle co-discovered the comet that now bears their names — Comet Swift-Tuttle. Soon after, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli noticed that the Perseid meteor particles orbit the sun in the same path as Comet Swift-Tuttle. That was the first indication that comets could be the source of our annual meteor showers.
We now know that the Perseid meteors are produced when the Earth crosses the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle in mid-August every year. Tiny bits of dust left in the wake of the comet smash into the Earth’s atmosphere at 133,000 mph and burn up as fiery meteors about 60 miles high.
What we witness as a “shooting star” is not the dust particle itself, but the hot, glowing column of super-heated air that surrounds it.
Particularly large Perseid meteors can leave glowing smoke trails that persist for many seconds or minutes after the meteor’s death plunge. If you are very lucky, you might even witness what I call a “shadow caster,” a meteor so bright that it casts flickering shadows across the ground.
Perseid meteors can be seen in all parts of the sky, but their trails will all trace back toward the constellation of Perseus, rising in our northeastern sky after midnight. You will always see the most meteors between midnight and dawn because that’s when the spinning Earth has you facing the direction from which the meteors are streaming, like looking out of the front windshield of a moving car as snow flakes stream past.
If the predicted Jupiter enhancement happens, it could create a sudden burst of meteors around 11 p.m. Even though the bright moon will still be up in our sky at that hour, it will be worth watching the sky for meteors. Just put the Moon to your back or behind the edge of a building to diminish the glare and then watch the sky to see what happens.
Perseid meteor watching makes a great family activity, too. Take the kids and find a nice, dark location, roll out the sleeping bags and see who can count the most meteors. With a little luck, the meteor counts this year might be even bigger than usual.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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