Each year when the second week of August rolls around, I know where my family will be. Loaded with blankets and camp chairs, we head to Lake Erie State Park to sit back, relax, and gaze at the stars. Why? Early August marks the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, one of the best displays of shooting stars every year.
This year, the predicted peak performance is on the night of August 12th (intensifying through the predawn hours, if you can stay up that long), though you may catch a glimpse of meteors any night between July 17th and August 24th. The Perseid meteor shower typically produces 50-100 meteors per hour, with outbursts up to a couple hundred meteors per hour in some years.
The meteors we see–particles ranging in size from a grain of sand to a small pebble—come from the debris of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Though this comet (think of a 16-mile-wide dusty snowball) orbits around the sun only once every 133 years, the Earth passes through its long-lasting trail of rocky and dusty debris around the same time every year, presenting us Earth-dwellers with the fiery flashes of the Perseid meteor shower.
As the tiny particles collide into the Earth’s atmosphere at a measly speed of 133,000 miles per hour (37 miles per second), they ignite due to the friction of the atmosphere. If you trace the paths of these meteors, they will appear to originate from around the same area; this point is called the radiant, and the Perseid meteor shower radiates from, you guessed it, the star constellation Perseus. Don’t worry though, you don’t need to know exactly where this constellation is to find the show; just look towards the northeast!
The number of meteors you see depends on several other factors as well, including lights, weather, location, and moon phase. The Northern Hemisphere is the place to be for these showers, and lucky for us, on August 12th the moon will be nearly brand new, which means that the night sky should be nice and dark. We can’t control the weather, so be sure to go out on a night with less cloud cover.
How do you throw a get-together for a meteor shower? You have to planet! The best way to see the Perseids is to find a safe, dark and secluded spot away from city lights – a local park perhaps? Be sure to check that the park will be open at night, and some State Parks are even offering programs for the big event! Leave the binoculars and telescopes at home, you will be able to see these meteors with just the naked eye, and the more open sky in your field of view, the better. Dress for the weather, bring blankets to lay on or comfortable chairs to sit in (reclining camp chairs are great for this), and don’t forget the snacks. The longer you sit out, the more meteors you are likely to see! It takes about 30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the dark, and the number of shooting stars increases throughout the evening. So go outside, get settled, and enjoy the beauty of fiery space debris!
Click here to check out some upcoming star-related State Park events!
Post by Kelsey Ruffino, State Parks
NASA Meteor and Meteorites Perseids In Depth
In The Sky Perseid Meteor Shower
DateandTime.com Perseid Meteor Shower 2018
Sky and Telescope The Best Meteor Showers in 2018
Learn more about meteors:
Aronson, Billy; Meteors : the truth behind shooting stars; Franklin Watts, NY, 1996.
Rose, Simon; Meteors; Weigl Publishers, NY, 2012.
Featured image: NASA/Bill Ingalls