Looking Up: Cosmic Debris

Aug 6, 2018

This mountain and night skyscape stretches across the French Pyrenees National Park on August 12, 2017 near the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. The multi-exposure panoramic view was composed from the Col d'Aubisque, a mountain pass.
Credit Jean-Francois Graffand / nasa.gov

The Perseid Meteor Shower is back and the 2018 edition could be a banner event as we learn on Looking Up this week.

One of the most interesting and beautiful things anyone can see in the night sky are meteors! Little blazes of light, streaking across the sky, are the result of dust, dirt, and other stuff out there in space smacking into our atmosphere so fast that they burn up as bright flashes of light. And this coming week we’ll see what many astronomers consider the very best of all meteor showers – the Perseids. We’ve talked about the Perseid’s before, so why am I talking about them again? Well, that’s because the 2018 edition of this celestial show is going to be extra, extra, extra cool and amazing.

First, the meteor shower will peak on the weekend, which is nice. But more importantly, unlike the last few years, this year’s Perseids happen during a new moon. That means there won’t be a bright Moon drowning out dimmer shooting stars. Lastly, the Perseids are awesome because they are one of the most intense showers. The actual peak night is Sunday, August 12th, when you’ll see up to 100 meteors per hour, especially after midnight, when the Earth has turned, so to speak, into the path of the debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle that creates the Perseids.

But unlike lots of meteor showers, which only happen on a night or so, the Perseids is actually spread out over a number of nights. If you take a peek next Friday or Saturday nights, you’ll likely still see 80 or more meteors per hour. Heck, even tonight you’ll see a few.

They are called the Perseids, because they seem to come from, or radiate from, the constellation Perseus, in the northern sky. So for the best look, lie back and watch the night sky, looking toward the north, and watch one of nature’s greatest shows pass overhead. 

This weekend is the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. Normally bright and colorful, the Perseid shower meteors are produced by dust swept up by planet Earth from the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle. In this composite image Perseid meteors from the 2016 meteor shower are set against a starry background along the Milky Way, with even the faint Andromeda Galaxy just above center. In the foreground, astronomers of all ages have gathered on a hill above the Slovakian village of Vrchtepla.
Credit Petr Horálek / nasa.gov

If you’d like to take a closer look at the Perseids, or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit csastro.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties.