Perseid meteors peak over the next few nights

By Phil Plait | August 11, 2012 10:47 am

The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks over the next night or two, so this is the best time to go out and look. I have a guide on how to observe the shower and a couple of links, too, but first indulge me a moment to talk about meteor showers.

The Earth orbits the Sun, as do comets. Comets are lumpy collections of gravel and dust held together in a matrix of frozen ice (usually water and/or carbon dioxide). As they get near the Sun, the ice turns into a gas, freeing the dust and gravel. This material follows in the same path of the comet like dirt flying off a dump truck on a highway. Over time – millennia – it spreads out into space.

The Earth plows into this stuff as it goes around the Sun. These tiny bits of cosmic jetsam burn up as they ram into our atmosphere at speeds of up to 100 kilometers per second, and we call them meteors.

Quick tip: a meteoroid is the solid bit of rock or whatever that travels through space. As it burns up in our air we call it a meteor. If it hits the ground, it’s called a meteorite. Now you can sound pretentious and correct people at cocktail parties!

The Earth is always being bombarded by meteors; about 100 tons per day burn up in the atmosphere. But that number goes up when we pass through the stream of matter that’s come off a comet – think of it as driving down a road and hitting the occasional insect. Then you pass near a creek and suddenly you slam into a swarm of bugs.

So yeah, meteor showers are the equivalent of that. But much prettier and less disgusting.

Every August the Earth passes through the debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, forming the Perseids meteor shower.

[The best place to observe the shower is apparently in Sarasota, Florida. Yes, this is a real picture; I took it myself.]

They’re called the Perseids because they appear to come from the sky in the constellation of Perseus. It’s a bit like when you drive through a tunnel and all the lights on the sides appear to be moving away from a point ahead of you. It’s perspective, an illusion of sorts. In this case, the orbits of the Earth and the meteoroids add together to make the meteors appear to shoot away from the part of the sky where Perseus is. Other showers do this too, but from different parts of the sky, and the showers are named after their constellation. Thus, the Leonids, the Orionids, the Taurids, and so on. The Perseids are one of the best of the year, with about 50 – 60 meteors per hour visible (so on average one per minute at the peak). You may see fewer than that, but sometimes there are mini-peaks where the number goes up. It’s worth going out for an hour or two to see them!

So here’s a very quick rundown of what you need to observe the shower (Universe Today has a good, short guide as well):


1) Find a place that’s dark. Some meteors are bright and easy to spot, others fainter. The darker the spot you find away from house and city lights, the better.

2) You don’t really need to face Perseus (to the northeast); in fact your best bet is to have as much sky visible as possible. The more heavenly real estate you can see, the better your chances of seeing more meteors.

3) Be outside after local midnight – literally, halfway between dusk and dawn. The geometry of the shower makes it more likely to see meteors at that time. To use the car and bugs analogy again, you see more splattered arthropods on your front windshield than the rear one because you’re driving forward into the swarm. After midnight, you’re on the part of the Earth facing into the direction of the Earth’s travel around the Sun, so you’ll see more meteors then.

4) Relax! Use a lounge chair or some other comfortable way to lie out. You want to be facing up, and the more comfortable you are the better. A blanket might help; even in the summer a little warmth can be nice. You won’t see streaks across the sky every which way like the heavens are falling; you’ll see a meteors on average once a minute or three. So you need patience – which is rewarded when you see that bit of light zipping across the sky. It’s quite a thrill.

5) Look up! You don’t need a telescope or binoculars or other fancy equipment. In fact, you’re less likely to see meteors if you’re looking through an eyepiece. Remember, the more sky you see the better.

6) Taking pictures of meteors is easy if you only have an inexpensive camera and a tripod. Set it up, point it anywhere you want – find a nice collection of bright stars if you prefer – and let it expose for a few minutes if you can. You’ll have a lot of shots of star trails and nothing else, but if fortune favors you, you’ll find a nice bright streak or two in some of the pictures. Meteors!

7) Got wireless? Then bring your mobile device outside with you and listen to the meteors, too! This is actually totally cool, and I highly recommend it.

That’s it! If you want a bit more info, I wrote a guide to Perseid observing back in 2007 that’s still a good synopsis of the situation, too. And again check Universe Today for more.

Meteor showers are a wonderful event, a time to relax and look up. It’s a good way to hang out with friends and family, and share the Universe with each other. What could be better?

Image credits: Perseid from the ISS: NASA; Swift-Tuttle street sign: me; Leonids over Uluru: Vic and Jen Winter at ICSTARS.


Related Posts:

- Pursuing Perseids
- Ten Things You Don’t Know About Comets
- Mesmerizing Perseid timelapse video
- Listen in on the Perseid meteor shower

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (31)

  1. Tensor

    Heheheheh, I used to go past that street sign every day, when I was heading to, and from, work.

  2. Patrick

    Here is a tip, if you like astronomy, don’t live near me. It will be cloudy for every interesting event. Both transits of Venus, most eclipses and meteor showers.

    Heck, we just moved out into the countryside last week, and naturally, it is cloudy for the perseids. Is this my punishment for working for the consumer telescope industry?

  3. It’s been dreary the last couple of days and I had hoped it would clear up, but it doesn’t look like that will be the case. :( So hopefully someone will take some good pictures of it.

  4. Aneka K. Bean (@Four_Hour_Robot)

    Don’t need a wireless if you have a Ham Radio License! Which is super useful and way easy to get.

  5. Sandra

    I can’t wait for tonight!! If anyone is interested, I found this site pretty useful: http://www.spacedex.com/perseids

  6. cory

    Patrick, I swear, you must live where I do. Because we’ve had a drought all summer….except for the past 2 and the next 3 days. Maybe someday I’ll wake up for a meteor shower, and it won’t be cloudy. Not this time.

  7. JB of Brisbane

    And I was just getting used to spelling Tuttle “T-E-U-T-U-L”, thanks to Discovery Channel.

  8. kat wagner

    We have a few clouds but the damn smoke is choking us out. I wish it was October because we usually get rain and snow showers by then. All these trees, sagebrush and grasslands burning up is a bunch of crap.

  9. Aneka K Bean

    FYI 67.25MHz is the frequency NASA monitors. Though a lot of VLF are good. The Google will explain. Or http://www.k5kj.net/meteor.htm

  10. Steve D

    For those new to this, say “ooh.” Now count to 60, slowly. Say “ooh” again. Rinse, repeat. That’s a GOOD meteor shower. And there’s a 50-50 chance you won’t see all the meteors because you can only see part of the sky. So count me a meteor shower non-enthusiast. I saw the transit (both in fact) and the May 20 eclipse, but I’ll pass on this one. In fact I think astronomy does itself a major disservice by hyping events like this that the average non-astronomer will inevitably find disappointing.

  11. Ryan L

    You can say whee every sixty seconds, but every once in a while, you can also see a fireball that paints the sky with beautiful shades of orange and blue. I was lucky enough to see one that came in at a low angle and burned for a good 5 seconds back in 2008. That ranks up there as a “That was AWESOME!!!!” instead of a simple whee. To each his own, I say.

  12. Entropy

    @ Steve
    I hear ya, and I normally don’t stay up for showers. But, it’s a misrepresentation to say the whole thing is 1 meteor at a time every minute or so. They are randomly distributed, meaning there’s a good number of clumps (BAM…BAM BAM BAM…BAM…BAM BAM) as well…which means there are also 5 minute lulls of course. :)

    Still, I occasionally go out just to stargaze, and meteors (every 15 or so minutes I estimate from experience on a normal night) are still a thrill. The trick is to treat it as a normal stargazing night–watch for satellites, try to spot Andromeda, etc.–and not go JUST for the meteors, because you’ll probably be disappointed if that’s all you care to see.

  13. RS

    Got out for an hour with the family and we were rewarded with several very bright meteors, several with very distinct vapor trails. Awesome.

  14. Chris

    Well I certainly wasn’t disappointed, but I think I got super crazy lucky. This probably isn’t the best place to observe from because there’s a fair amount of light pollution, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I saw about 8 or so meteors during the half hour or so that I was observing.

    That’s not the cool part. The cool part is that while most of the meteors I saw were what you normally expect to see during a meteor shower (faint streaks of light, about as bright as a star, zipping across the sky), the very first one I saw tonight a DOOZY. It must have been a fairly big rock, because it was a BRIGHT fireball that lit up the sky like a firework, and there was a clearly visible smoke trail behind it. I went nuts when I saw it. I still can’t get over how completely badass that was.

    I’m kicking myself for not having a camera going. I considered setting it up to take long exposure shots, but I figured with the light pollution here, I wouldn’t see very many and other people were likely to get better shots than me, anyway. Next time I won’t assume!

  15. Jason

    We saw only a few, but didn’t stay out long, and were observing before midnight.

  16. cory

    Entropy, yeah, some years aren’t just that impressive. But the chance–the excuse–to go out and spend a late summer night on a blanket, just looking up at the stars, in the quiet, maybe with your kid? To woolgather and contemplate awe? I’m all for more of that. If any science learning happens, that’s a bonus.

    Some nights the biggest thing the kids learn is how many eyeballs reflect back at you when you scan the farm field with a flashlight. But it’s all inspiring.

  17. SkyGazer

    So typical. I was out. Staring and cramping my neck.
    No moon (yet). Clouded sky (middle of the island). Waiting and staring.
    So there I was for about an hour and a half and one little pathetic streak.
    Than my wife came home from her late shift. Steppes outside and first thing she says is “ah another one and there one more.”
    I missed both of them because I was giving her attention.
    Happens she had great skies (12km further on at the coast) and all the hotel guests were amazed with the display (which I advertised through my wife).
    bluh

  18. James Anselment

    Went out this morning, I only saw 2……………… bummer. I live in Idaho, no lights out in the country- was on a bike ride for a little over 2 hours (between 4 am and 6 am) hoping to be amazed, but I was disappointed. :( The smoke from all the wildfires is terrible here, the moon was red, and the line-up of the big 3 was pretty neat though….. Venus, the moon, and Jupiter. I remember seeing this shower as a youngster and there were so many, it was almost scary for me and my friend.

  19. Wzrd1

    @Patrick, you must live near me. There appears to be an ill studied law of the universe that requires it to be cloudy whenever anything interesting is happening in the sky for my region. :/

    I DID get to see a whiz bang bright green fireball that was moving east-northeast once. I was driving home on I-95 from the beach and it appeared to finally die off over central New Jersey.

  20. Infinite123Lifer

    We love the Perseid’s. Every year our birthdays come with the meteor shower. What a spectacular annual birthday gift from the Universe, we are so lucky. It is more about getting out under the sky with family and friends and reflecting on our lives than seeing the giant fireball, but that never hurts :) I think I was about 12 when I started to figure out that for some reason every year on my birthday I would see shooting stars. I was 20 before I realized it wasn’t just my luck and so we turned it into a regular event.

    Happy Hunting

  21. Des Peach

    It is freezing cold out in South Africa but I,m going to brave the cold to hopefully experience a spectular shower tonight.Thank you for the tips and guidance.I, hope it is not going to be cloudy and overcast.

  22. I gave it a shot last night, 9pm Sunday Shanghai time, and couldn’t see diddly squat. Not a lot of clouds, but pollution and light pollution from the city made the sky hazy & simply not clear, despite being relatively cloudless.

    Tip: Get out of the city!!!

  23. pinkgiwaffe

    I co-led a group of about 20 hikers up a hill about 45km from Kuala Lumpur (capital city of Malaysia). Did a 30 minutes hike at 3:15 am local Malaysian time on Sunday morning (12 August) and ….. it was too cloudy :( Not a single meteor T_T

    Good thing that we managed to see Jupiter right on top of the crescent moon and bright shining Venus. And Orion’s Belt. We had an amateur astronomy buff with us.

  24. ladyrancher

    Went out for an hour Saturday night (11:30 to 12:30 Texas) and saw about 10 meteors. Several were quite amazing. But answer me this – does a meteor coming directly toward you make a yellow puff in the sky or were my eyes just getting bleary?

  25. steve m

    Just saw a pic they tweeted from the ISS. This brings up the question of risk to the ISS. They must have considered this, but it still seems risky to me for the ISS to get hit by even a small particle travelling so fast. Do they prepare for the possibility, no matter how low the probability of occurence? Or is it that the particles are so small they are not a risk? (but still burn brightly in the atmosphere) I’m not a doomsayer, just want to see some numbers. Thanks.

  26. dcsohl

    I kinda have to agree with the non-shower enthusiasts. Especially since I went out at 4AM for the Leonid shower in 2001 (3000 ZHR, or roughly 1 per second) and am now permanently spoiled for life.

  27. CatMom

    It was a decent shower, but I was forever spoiled from seeing the Leonids from HAWAII in 1999 or 2000 (can’t remember which now). Oh my.

  28. Herb

    Hey while we’re on the subject, could someone clear up the meanings of comet, asteroid, and meteoroid for me? This has always confused me. What are the differences?

  29. Perseid Meteor Shower Timelapse
    from Huckleberry Knob, NC
    photos by Daniel Lowe – danieldragonfilms.com

    timelapse video
    http://vimeo.com/47431341

    StarTrails image:
    http://flic.kr/p/cRJKX1

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