In the sky: the Perseids

A Perseid meteor over the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Credit: ESO/S. Guisard.

A Perseid meteor over the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Credit: ESO/S. Guisard.

The most reliable and visible of the dozens and dozens of meteor showers that occur over the course of the year is the Perseid shower. The Perseids occur every year in July and August when Earth passes through the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, and bits of rock broken off from the comet collide with Earth’s atmosphere.

The Perseids are sometimes called the Old Faithful of meteor showers. They’re visible in the height of summer, when the nights are warm (at least here in New Jersey), and the skies are likely to be clear. They have consistently high rates of visible meteors, typically 60 to 100 per hour in dark skies. The tail of Swift-Tuttle is spread across a wide swath of space, so you can see a few meteors per hour all the way back to mid-July and for practically the whole month of August. If you see any meteors coming from the northeast this month, they’re probably Perseids.

This year, the Perseids will peak over the next two nights (Sunday night through Tuesday morning), and the crescent Moon will set early, so it won’t wash them out. All you need is a clear, dark sky; the meteors will appear all over the sky. But the best time to see them is 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. That’s because the meteors come from ahead along Earth’s orbit, and they hit the atmosphere faster. But if you can’t get out that late, late evening will still give you some nice celestial fireworks.

Good luck, and keep watching the skies.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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