If you go outdoors after sunset and it’s a clear night for the next month or two, look skyward. The Perseid meteor shower will be visible in the sky this weekend, and we’re here at Popular Science to address any questions you might have about it. Let’s get started.
When and where is this going to happen?
Every summer, the Perseid meteor shower lasts roughly a month. The Perseids will peak between August 11 and 14, 2021, and will last from around July 14 to August 24. The optimum viewing periods are before dawn, as is customary, and since the moon will only be 13% full on the peak days, the meteor should be easily visible.
What makes a meteor shower different from a regular shower?
A shower is a place in your home where you stand and water is poured all over you anytime you need to clean.
A meteor shower occurs when several small fragments of comets and asteroids collide with the Earth’s atmosphere. The racing chunks of dust, ice, and rock are no match for the dense bubble of air that surrounds our planet (which we call the atmosphere), and as they hurtle towards the earth they will never reach, they burn up in a spectacular flame that streaks through the skies.
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To summarise, you take a shower to clean and re-energize your deliciously dirty human body. If you can stay up a bit later than usual to witness the splendor of the night sky, a meteor shower will help revive your amazement at this enormous world.
(Please note that a rain shower is not the same as a thunderstorm.) While they may happen at any moment, they are known for appearing just as you are getting ALL EXCITED about a meteor shower, merely to ruin your view. Darn it if rain is forecast on the same night as a meteor shower. That’s a bummer. Instead, take a good warm regular shower.)
What is the origin of the Perseid meteor shower’s name?
During the Perseids, brilliant shooting points of light will appear to pour out of the constellation Perseus as you look up into the night sky. They aren’t coming from the constellation Perseus; rather, the spot in the sky where the meteors originate from (known as the radiant if you want to impress your pals) happens to match up with it. The Perseids have been watched for thousands of years, with documented records going back to 36 CE.
What produces the Perseid meteor showers?
The Perseid meteor shower is made up of the dusty remains of Comet 109P Swift-Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle, like a shedding cat, sheds little parts of itself as it travels through the solar system, especially as it gets close to our star and its solid, ice surface warms up, sublimating into a gas. It leaves a true cloud of itself behind it wherever it goes in the inner solar system, but instead of dandruff and hair, it’s ice and dust. It emits them in the form of a lovely glow that trails behind the comet, known as the coma, which occurs as the comet approaches the sun. The dust and ice remain after the comet’s nucleus, or solid heart has gone past.
When astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle discovered it in 1862, they named it Swift-Tuttle. Swift and Tuttle both saw the comet on their own, thus they were given the same name. The comet, on the other hand, has been in our cosmic neighborhood for quite some time. It’s an ice body with an orbit that takes it beyond Neptune, then swings back in, closer to the sun, where its orbit approaches ours. It takes 133 years to travel around the sun once.
It last came near to Earth in December 1992, and it will do so again in the summer of 2126.
Swift-Tuttle is a big comet with a diameter of roughly 16 kilometers. To put it in perspective, the asteroid was roughly double the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. People were concerned about whether it would ever strike Earth, but following the most recent near approach in 1992, experts calculated its orbit for the next few thousand years and determined that we are not in any danger from this comet. Whew.
Is it possible for other planets to travel through it?
In comparison to the planets, Swift-Tuttle circles the sun at a high inclination. Its orbital diagram may be seen here. The comet is currently on its journey to the solar system’s distant reaches and is far below the ecliptic plane (the planets, including Earth, all orbit the sun on about the same geometric plane).
“Its orbit is inclined approximately 113 degrees to the ecliptic, and as it travels southward across the plane of the solar system, it gets near to Earth’s orbit,” says Jim Scotti, an astronomer at the University of Arizona. When the comet went over in 1992, Scotti was there to witness it. “It also crosses across the plane of the solar system between Uranus and Saturn on its journey inward, passing between Uranus and Saturn.”
Although we are the sole planet to pass through the comet’s debris stream, other, larger planets can influence the comet’s lengthy and dusty track. Jupiter, in particular, is known to cause the comet’s path to be disrupted (see below for more information!)
Other planets with atmospheres, such as Venus, Mars, and Mercury, are known to have meteor showers. Jupiter is bombarded by huge meteors and comets, whereas Saturn’s rings are bombarded by meteor impacts. Because of the vast distance between Uranus and Earth, meteor showers are more difficult to see, but there is evidence that Neptune has been hit by at least one comet, and models imply that Uranus has collided with other planetary bodies in the past.
We must be using up the dust if we pass along the dust trail every year, right? How many more meteor showers are there to come?
Plenty. Because the comet returns every 133 years, the substance that makes up the Perseids is slowly but steadily replenished.
What happens when these objects enter the atmosphere, and how large are they?
According to NASA researcher Bill Cooke, most of the objects that race across the sky is barely a few millimeters to a few inches across. As they enter our atmosphere, they are moving at a speed of 37 miles per second, or 133,200 miles per hour.
Even the thin highest regions of our atmosphere prove impermeable to the sand-grain-sized particles, which burn brilliantly as they plummet towards Earth, at that speed. Larger meteoroids, such as the 55-foot-diameter Chelyabinsk meteor that burst above Russia in 2013, follow a similar but more deadly path. Air drives itself into the meteoroid as it approaches Earth, increasing the pressure and forcing it to burst from the inside out. Thankfully, the Perseids will only produce considerably smaller fireballs that will light up the night sky without causing any harm.
Is it true that some years are better than others?
Remember how we talked about Jupiter’s influence earlier? While Swift-Tuttle typically follows the same route around the sun, it (and its dust) is occasionally dragged a little by bigger planets like Jupiter, causing it to diverge somewhat. The solar wind, a continuous stream of particles from the sun, also influences the location of the comet and its dust, gradually pushing on the dust trails left behind and distinguishing them.
“The debris that left the comet at its perihelion [or closest point to the sun] passage in 1862 will be closer to the comet than junk that left the comet three orbits earlier in 1479. Because the dust has spread out further, it may not be as thick as it was when it was expelled by the comet.” Scotti explains.
The streams from the comet’s passages in 1479 and 1862 are somewhat offset from the remainder of the tail, but distinct enough to be seen. When Earth passes through them, as it happened in 2016, an outburst or a significant increase in the number of meteors observed per hour can occur. Although there will be no outburst this year and the moon will not cooperate fully, stargazers should still be able to see plenty of streaks in the sky if they wait.
Is there a lot of that kind of trash out there?
Yep! In terms of meteor showers, the Perseids are far from alone. The Geminids are noted for being more dazzling in December, although they usually happen during really cold weather when most people would rather remain inside.
Okay, that’s cool. When do you think I’ll be able to view the Perseids?
This year’s Perseid meteor shower began in mid-July and will peak on August 11 and 12. Going out in the pre-dawn hours of August 12 is recommended by NASA since activity will be at its peak above the horizon. Lookup (but not straight up) and to the north, in the darkest spot you can locate, and spend a few hours just admiring the sky. The longer you wait for your eyes to adapt, the more meteors you’ll see.
If getting out of bed in the small hours of the morning isn’t your thing, you may try your luck any time after dark this week, with good odds around midnight or later. To ensure you receive the greatest views, read our meteor shower watching advice.