The Perseids, one of the most active meteor showers of the year, hits its peak tonight. So named for the constellation it appears to originate from, Perseus in the Northeastern sky. But this isn’t the source of these “shooting stars”, a comet is. A debris trail of dust and other small pieces of the comet Swift-Tuttle coincides with our yearly trip around the sun- and every August, the Earth sweeps through it- creating streaks across the sky as small pieces burn up in our atmosphere.
This astronomical crossroads lasts nearly a month from July 17th to August 24th, but the peak- when the Earth passes through the most cluttered cosmic space, occurs August 12-13. The highest number of meteors should be during this time, but there’s one big, bright problem you’ll have to contend with- the moon. A nearly full moon will wash out much of the fainter meteors, but you could still see the brighter ones at a rate between 10-15 an hour. Unfortunately, much less impressive compared to other Perseids events with rates closer to 50-100 per hour.
Exactly how many you will see will be dictated by your location. Jon Hakkila, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at C of C, explains
“(How many you can expect) depends on the sky brightness where you are. I mean if its a dark sky- if you’re far away from the city- you’ll see more of them, just like you’ll see more stars. But if you’re in the city you’re limited to the really bright ones.”
To make sure you make the most of what you can see- follow these tips:
Stay Up Late or Wake Up Early
These meteors mostly occur in the predawn hours after midnight and before sunrise. Some will certainly streak across the sky before this but you’ll have the best chance to see them if you can head out as late (after 10 PM) or as early (before 6 AM) as you can.
Go Dark and Get Comfy
Find a place far away from any light pollution and give yourself at least half an hour away from your phone or tv to adjust to the darkness. Load up on the bug spray and lean back with the widest view of the night sky.
Meteors will streak across any point, but originate from the northeast
If you trace back all of the meteors with this event, they’ll seem to originate from the constellation Perseus in the northeast sky. This is where the shower gets its name from. Don’t limit yourself with the northeastern sky as meteors can and will streak at other points in the sky.
No extra equipment is needed to enjoy this astronomical event but in next week’s Moment of Science I’ll take you along to the only observatory in the Lowcountry to get a better view at objects well beyond our solar system.
Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson