Every August the night sky is peppered with bits of comet debris in what is called the annual Perseid meteor shower. The Perseids are bits of the comet Swift-Tuttle and often create the most amazing meteor shower of the year.
The Persied meteoroids are fast. They enter the Earth’s atmosphere at roughly 133,200 mph and are about the size of a grain of sand. Very few are as big as peas or marbles. Almost none hit the ground but if one does, it’s called a meteorite.
When a Perseid particle enters the atmosphere, it compresses the air in front of it, which heats up. The meteor, in turn, can be heated to more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense heat vaporizes most meteors, creating what we call shooting stars. Most become visible at around 60 miles up. Some large meteors splatter, causing a brighter flash called a fireball, and sometimes an explosion that can often be heard from the ground.
Last summer a bright moon wrecked the chances of sky watchers spotting the shower by blotting out many of the fainter streaks. But this year the moon will be three days past last quarter phase .
Here are some tips to help your meteor shower viewing be successful.
Whether you are watching from a downtown area or the dark countryside watching a meteor shower is an awesome experience.
The Moon – The moon is not your friend during a meteor shower. There is nothing you can do about the bright light reflecting off the moon. You’ll have to put up with it or wait until the next favorable shower.
City Lights – The best thing you can do is to get as far away from urban light pollution as possible. Find a clear, unclouded spot to view the night sky.
Meteors will always travel away from the constellation for which the shower is named. This apparent point of origin is called the “radiant”. For example, meteors during the Leonid meteor shower will appear to originate from the constellation Leo.
Be sure to dress for outside conditions. This means appropriate clothing for hot or cold overnight temperatures.
Bring something comfortable on which to sit or lie down. A reclining chair or ground pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky. Plan to be patient and spend at least half an hour watching the display.
Don’t use a telescope or binoculars. This will reduce the amount of sky you can see at one time lowering the odds that you’ll see anything. Relax your eyes and they will quickly zone in on any movement up above.
Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other bright light. If you have to look at something use a red light. Many flashlights have an interchangeable red filter.