Celestial News: Time for the Perseid meteors | SteamboatToday.com

Celestial News: Time for the Perseid meteors

You can’t always count on seeing a beautiful display of the Northern Lights on the night of the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, but you can count on seeing from 60 to 90 meteors per hour shooting across the sky. This image was taken in the predawn hours of Aug. 12, 2000, and captures a bright Perseid meteor piercing the colorful aurora borealis over Hahns Peak in Colorado.
Jimmy Westlake/courtesy

The annual Perseid meteor shower is one of my favorite celestial events. It is the Old Faithful of our annual meteor showers and occurs during the warm nights of summer. There’s nothing quite like lying back on the ground, staring straight up into the sky and counting the meteors as they zip by. 

We experience this shower of shooting stars every August because the Earth plows head-on into the dust stream left behind by a comet named Swift-Tuttle. Discovered in 1862 by American astronomers 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 … whoosh. They burn up in brief but brilliant streaks of light. 

If the sky is dark and clear, a single observer usually can count between 60 and 90 Perseid meteors per hour during the shower’s peak. I’ve noticed that the Perseids tend to shoot across the sky in flurries of two or three, followed by a few minutes of calm in between. Many of the bright ones leave glowing trails behind them that can persist for several seconds after the meteor burns out. The meteors will seem to spring out of the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, just below the familiar W-shaped star pattern of Cassiopeia, the Queen. 

This year, peak activity is expected in the hours before dawn Aug. 12, but 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 then back down. More meteors can be expected in the hours after midnight, when the spinning Earth has us facing into the direction of the on-coming dust swarm. 

The 23-day old crescent moon will rise around 12:22 a.m. and stick around until dawn, but its feeble glow shouldn’t interfere too much with some of the best meteor-watching of the year. Venus, the Morning Star, also will be there to light up the dawn.

Jimmy Westlake is the former full-time professor of physical sciences at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and former director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College. “Celestial News” appears monthly in Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography at jwestlake.com.

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