Imagine an impact between the Earth and a tiny rock the size of a grain of sand. The outcome of such an impact is one of the most exciting sights in the night sky, a shooting star. The accepted term for a shooting star is a meteor. When Earth passes through a stream of such particles in space, it produces what is known as a meteor shower. One of the best observed of such showers is the annual Perseid meteor shower which will peak on the 13th of August in 2011. Following up on my last post, this meteor shower is a great opportunity to share the sky with kids.
The Perseid meteor shower is an annual shower occurring in mid-August when the Earth plows through the debris stream left behind by comet Swift-Temple. The reason for the name is that the meteors from this shower appear to come from the constellation Perseus. According to NASA, the little bits of comet dust slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere at 140,000 miles per hour. At this high velocity, the dust burns up as it enters the atmosphere and the heat released produces a beautiful glowing streak in the sky as the particle vaporizes. During a meteor shower such as the Perseid shower, you can see many meteors in a short time span.
One of the great things about observing meteor showers is that you don’t need any equipment to view them. Just go outside and look up. You are likely to see dozens of meteors per hour near the peak time of the shower. This year the full Moon will be in the sky at the time of the Perseid shower. The Moon’s glare will make it harder to see the fainter meteors, but you are likely to still easily catch the brighter fireballs. These fireballs are memorable when they happen and are caused by the larger pieces of comet debris entering our atmosphere. Some of these are bright enough to cast a shadow.
Perseid meteors will start appearing as soon as Perseus rises above the eastern horizon around 10pm and continue until sunrise. The peak meteor activity is expected on the night of Friday, the 12th of August through early Saturday morning (13th). Because the debris stream is wide, meteors can be observed on the days around the peak as well. In fact, the meteor shower has already started as of the time of this post. So, take the opportunity to go outside, share the sky with your child, and enjoy the meteors!
What dates to look: Peak Perseid meteor activity is on the 12-13th of August. Meteors can be seen from 10 August to 15 August.
What time to look: You can start looking after 10pm. More meteors are visible in the hours just before dawn.
Where to look: Anywhere in the sky is good. Once Perseus is above the horizon, meteors can appear anywhere so just look up.
Observing tip: If you can, find a place where you can stand in a moon shadow and still see a reasonable expanse of sky. Perhaps you can use a row of trees, your house, or a building to shadow the Moon. This trick will help you to see more meteors despite the Moon glare.
Most importantly: Have fun!