The annual Perseid meteor shower started late Tuesday night. It will continue until about 5 am on Thursday morning. Therefore, if you have not yet caught a glimpse of this spectacular meteor shower, tonight will be your last chance to do so this year!
The Perseids are actually debris particles that have come from the Comet Swift-Tuttle. Throughout the many years that this comet orbits the sun, it routinely leaves numerous streams of debris in its wake. Starting in July of each year, the Earth travels through some of this debris, although the meteors are not usually visible until August.
Needless to say, that quite a few had already been spotted in late July. Since then there has been an average of 25 meteors per hour or, almost one meteor shooting through the sky every two minutes!
The Perseids can put on a very spectacular show, notwithstanding gloomy weather and the moon's brightness of course. Which is exactly the case this week when the moon will be quite bright and might just outshine some of the more fainter meteors.
However, that still leaves plenty of bigger, brighter meteors to be seen with the naked eye down on Earth.
Whilst it is interesting to note that most meteors are smaller than a pea, some can be quite huge. Their brightness is as a result of the meteor vaporizing once they enter the atmosphere of the Earth. This, in turn, creates very vivid streaks across the night sky.
Astronomers believe that the Perseids begin from the Perseus constellation, which usually appears quite high in the sky at around midnight and by dawn it can be seen directly overhead. Therefore, just as with other meteor showers, the Perseids are best seen during the hours from midnight to dawn as that is when the side of the Earth that you are on, rotates in the direction of Earth's travels through space; thereby picking up the meteors from the atmosphere at a high rate of speed.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the Perseid meteors will be best visible during the hours leading up to dawn.
A representative from NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, Bill Cooke, explained:
"Earth passes through the densest part of the debris stream sometime on Aug. 12. Then, you could see dozens of meteors per hour."
To get the best view of the Perseids, dress warmly and take a blanket or camping chair and travel out of the city and away from the harsh street lights. Try to find an area in which a tree, hill or other solid structure can block the light of the moon from your vision. Then lie back on your blanket or camping chair and look up at the sky. After roughly 15 minutes your eyes should become well adjusted to the darkness and you should start seeing the Perseids flying through the sky above.
Keep in mind that the Perseids, which will look just like any other shooting star, can come from any direction, although when you trace their path back you will find that they all stem from the Perseus constellation. Also, the Perseids can appear quite intermittently. You might see just one shooting through the sky and then a few minutes later a whole cluster will shoot through.
You can start looking for Earthgrazing Perseids that soar just above the northeastern horizon between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. your local time. Cook explains:
"Earthgrazers are meteors that approach from the horizon and skim the atmosphere overhead like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond. They are long, slow and colorful, among the most beautiful of meteors."
Unlike other areas of science, meteor forecasting is something that is still trying to catch on with main stream astronomers. Therefore, since it is not yet an exact science, it may be in your best interest to start your meteor watching party from 11pm tonight until dawn on Thursday, especially if you want the best chance of seeing the meteors in action.
Even though a few of the lighter meteors will not be truly visible thanks to the brilliant moonlight that will be high in the sky this week, Astronomers are still forecasting 200 meteors to pass through per hour in intervals of 15 minutes each, although this is based on someone who is watching the night sky from a great vantage point out in the countryside. The closer you are to suburbia, the more the lights from the street lamps, houses and cars will obscure your vision.
Photo Credit: jaredten