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Celestial News: A perfect year for Perseid meteors

The annual Perseid meteor shower almost always makes my top 10 list of celestial events. It is one of the most reliable and prolific of our annual meteor showers and occurs during the warm nights of mid-summer. There’s no other experience quite like lying back on the ground, staring straight up into the sky and counting meteors as they zip by.

We experience this shower of shooting stars in mid-August every year because the Earth plows head-on into the dust river left behind by a comet named Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, this dirty snowball orbits the Sun once every 133 years, leaving a trail of dust in its wake. The particles shed by the comet are exceedingly small, not much larger than grains of sand, but when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere traveling 37 miles per second, they burn up in brief but brilliant streaks of light, about 60 miles above the ground.

Meteor showers are named for the constellation from which the meteors appear to originate. The Perseid meteors seem to spring out of the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, just below the familiar W-shaped star pattern of Cassiopeia.

This year, the night of peak activity is expected to be Aug. 12 to 13, however, a large number of meteors can be seen about a week on either side of this peak, as the shower ramps up to maximum and back down.

If the sky is dark and clear, a single observer usually can count between 60 and 90 Perseid meteors per hour — about one a minute — during the shower’s peak hours. I’ve noticed that the Perseids tend to shoot across the sky in brief flurries of two or three, with a few minutes of calm in between.

Most of the Perseid meteors you’ll see will be faint to moderately bright, but there will be an occasional fireball that is bright enough to cast your shadow on the ground. Many Perseids leave a persistent glowing train in their wake that can remain visible for several seconds after the meteor itself has burned out.

I liken the excitement of meteor watching to the excitement of fishing. The anticipation that the next one might be “The Big One” provides me enough adrenaline to keep me awake all night long.

You can expect to see more meteors in the hours after midnight, when the Earth has us facing in the direction of the oncoming dust swarm. The two-day old crescent moon will set around 9:20 p.m. on Aug. 12, leaving the sky nice and dark for the rest of the night. This makes it a perfect year for Perseid meteor watching.

Jimmy Westlake retired from full-time teaching at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs campus in 2017, after 19 years as their professor of physical sciences. His Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Westlakes’s astrophotography website at jwestlake.com.


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