Perseid Meteors Return; Viewing Conditions Excellent!

August 9, 2010

Contact:
Alan MacRobert, Senior Editor, Sky & Telescope
  617-864-7360 x2151, amacrobert@SkyandTelescope.com

Note to editors/producers: With this release are two publication-quality images; click on the small versions below.

For audio files of brief sound bites and a longer audio explanation of the meteor shower, as well as a video animation, see the bottom of this page.

More information for the public is available at
Dark Nights for the Perseids.


The Perseid meteor shower, an annual celestial event beloved by millions of skywatchers around the world, returns to the night sky this week. And because the Moon is new, there will be no moonlight to hinder the view.

Perseid meteor over Stellafane
A bright Perseid meteor streaked down Saturday night (Aug. 7, 2010) over buildings at the Stellafane amateur astronomy convention in Springfield, Vermont. Click for larger image.
Credit: Sky & Telescope / Dennis Di Cicco
Sky & Telescope magazine predicts that the Perseid shower will be at or near its peak late on Wednesday night (the night of August 11-12) and, probably even better, late on Thursday night (August 12-13). "The moonless sky this year means the viewing will be ideal," notes Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope.

Although an occasional Perseid meteor may catch your attention in early evening, the prime viewing hours are from about 11 p.m. or midnight (local time) until the first light of dawn. This is when the shower's “radiant,” its perspective point of origin, is high up in your sky. The higher the radiant, the more meteors appear all over the sky.

To enjoy the Perseids, you need no equipment but your eyes. Find a dark spot with a wide-open view overhead. Bring a reclining lawn chair or a ground cloth so you can lie back and watch the sky in comfort. Bundle up in blankets or a sleeping bag, both for mosquito shielding and for warmth; clear nights can grow surprisingly chilly under the open stars (due to radiational cooling). “Relax, be patient, and let your eyes adapt to the dark,” says Sky & Telescope editor in chief Robert Naeye. “With a little luck you'll see a ‘shooting star’ every minute or so on average.”

Perseids can appear anywhere and everywhere in the sky. So the best direction to watch is wherever your sky is darkest, usually straight up. Faint Perseids appear as tiny, quick streaks. Occasional brighter ones may sail across the heavens for several seconds and leave a brief train of glowing smoke.

You actually won't see several at once!
The Perseid meteors appear to stream away from the shower's "radiant" point near the border of Perseus and Cassiopeia. This is the perspective point where they would all appear to be coming from if you could see them approaching in the far distance. In fact we see them only in the last second or two as they streak into Earth's upper atmosphere, and this can happen anywhere in your sky.


Under dark-sky conditions, you may see an average of one a minute around the time of the shower's peak. You're very unlikely to see several at once!


Click image for larger star-chart version.

Click here for a version sized for HD format.


Here's a video animation (3.5 MB .mov file) of simulated meteors in this scene.

Sky & Telescope illustration
When you see a meteor, track its path backward. If you eventually come to the constellation Perseus — which climbs the northeastern sky as the night progresses, as seen at right — then a Perseid is what you’ve just witnessed.

Occasionally you may spot an interloper. The weaker Delta Aquarid and Kappa Cygnid showers are also active during Perseid season, and there are always a few random, “sporadic” meteors. All of these track back to other parts of the sky.

Any light pollution will cut down the numbers visible. So will the radiant's lower altitude if you’re viewing early in the night. But the brightest few meteors shine right through light pollution, and the few that happen when the radiant is low are especially long — skimming the upper atmosphere and flying far across the heavens.

How and Why

The meteors are caused by tiny, sand- to pea-size bits of dusty debris streaking into the top of Earth's atmosphere about 80 miles up. Each Perseid particle zips in at 37 miles per second, creating a quick, white-hot streak of superheated air. The nuggets in Grape Nuts cereal are a close match to the estimated size, color, and texture of typical meteor-shower particles.

These particular bits were shed long ago by Comet Swift-Tuttle and are distributed all along the comet's orbit around the Sun. Earth passes through this tenuous "river of rubble" every year in mid-August.

More about the Perseids and how to watch them appears in the August issue of Sky & Telescope magazine and at SkyandTelescope.com.

For more skywatching information and astronomy news, visit SkyandTelescope.com or pick up Sky & Telescope, the essential magazine of astronomy since 1941.


Audio files:

Four sound bites, totaling 41 seconds (650k .MP3 file), in which Kelly Beatty [BEE-tee], Senior Contributing Editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, describes how and when to view the Perseid meteor shower.

Audio Feature, 1m 32s (1.5M .MP3 file) in which Kelly Beatty [BEE-tee], Senior Contributing Editor for Sky & Telescope magazine, describes how, when, and where to view the Perseid meteor shower.

Video animation (3.5 MB .MOV file) of simulated meteors in the northeast sky view.


Sky Publishing (a New Track Media company) was founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer Jr. and Helen Spence Federer, the original editors of Sky & Telescope magazine. In addition to Sky & Telescope and SkyandTelescope.com, the company publishes two annuals (Beautiful Universe and SkyWatch), as well as books, star atlases, posters, prints, globes, and other fine astronomy products.

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