Enjoying the Perseids Meteor Shower

Aug 02, 2017
The peak of the Perseids meteor shower is almost here. Learn more about the Perseids and how to best enjoy this annual display.

Summer is a classic time for looking at the night sky. With the Perseids meteor shower already appearing and the peak days almost here, now is the perfect opportunity to head outside and gaze in wonder at this popular display.

The Perseids meteor shower is tiny bits of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. As the comet orbits the sun (taking 134 years to make the full rotation), it leaves a trail of dust and debris that it off-gases as it is warmed by the sun. Most of these particles are about the size of a grain of sand. When they hit the earth’s atmosphere, at about 37 miles per second, they burn up in a flash of light.

The Central Oregon night sky. Photo: Kris Kristovich.
The Central Oregon night sky. Photo: Kris Kristovich.
The Perseids receive their name from the constellation Perseus. If you were to trace the path of all the meteors you see from Perseids on a sky map, they would all appear to radiate from a point in Perseus (which in turn is named after the son of the mortal Danaë and the Greek god Zeus).

In mid-July through late August of every year, Earth passes through Swift-Tuttle’s debris trail, allowing us to see this spectacle. This year, we’ll be passing through the central, most dense part of the comet’s orbit on the nights of August 11th and 12th, making this the peak time to see Perseids in our area.

Luckily for us, Central Oregon is an excellent spot for stargazing because we have a relatively small amount of light pollution. The best time to view Perseids is usually after midnight since we’re then on the side of Earth that is moving into the comet dust. Head to an open area where you can see as much sky as possible. This year’s viewing is a bit tricky, as the moon will be around ¾ full during the peak of the showers. You’ll still be able to see plenty of meteors, but the dimmer ones will be obscured.

Before heading out, it’s recommended to take a look at a star chart to locate the constellation Perseus, but make sure to watch the whole sky since the meteors will be anywhere. It takes your eyes at least 30 minutes to fully adapt to dark vision, so give yourself plenty of time to adjust. Also, make sure to leave your flashlights and cell phone screens off. It’s a great idea to bring a reclining chair and a sleeping bag, as you’ll want to be comfortable and warm for this waiting game.

The Perseids are known for producing some very bright meteors and occasionally the brightest ones will leave faint trails. If you’re lucky, you can use binoculars to sometimes see the meteor trail! The Perseids typically averages around 140 meteors per hour, but this year’s moon might cause you to see less than that.

Perseids can also produce an outburst, which is when the earth passes through a denser part of the comet’s orbit, filled with more dust and debris. During an outburst, there can be hundreds of meteors per minute. While there are no predictions for an outburst this year, they can occur randomly, so keep an eye out!

We hope you’ll enjoy the beauty of the night sky and the Perseids display this year—happy stargazing!

 

Many thanks to Rod Moorehead for contributing his astronomy knowledge to this blog post. Rod is a casual astronomer who enjoys the night sky and sharing this wonder with others.