Meteors (popularly known as ‘shooting stars’) are the result of small particles, some as small as a grain of sand, entering the Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. The parent comet, Swift-Tuttle, which last passed near the Earth in 1992, leaves this debris in the Earth’s path. On entering the atmosphere, these particles heat the air around them, causing the characteristic streak of light seen from the ground. The meteors appear to originate from a single point, called a ‘radiant’, in the constellation of Perseus, hence the name of the shower.
The Perseids are typically active from around 17 July to 24 August, although for most of that period only a few meteors an hour will be visible. During the peak, and if the predictions by Maslov, Lyytinen and Vaubaillon are right, as many as 100 meteors or more may be seen each hour. This year, the light from the waxing gibbous Moon will interfere to some extent for the first part of the night, so observers are advised to look out in the early morning hours after midnight when the Moon is very low in the sky or has set.
Dr David Asher, also at Armagh Observatory, continued, “If you’re clouded out on the morning of the 12 August, you still have a chance to see the normal maximum the next night.”
Credits: Courtesy of Pierre Martin
Although the number of visible meteors is hard to predict accurately, you can expect to see at least one every few minutes. They mostly appear as fleeting streaks of light lasting less than a second, but the brightest ones leave behind trails of vaporised gases and glowing air molecules that may take a few seconds to fade.
An outburst of Perseid meteors lights up the sky in August 2009 in this time-lapse image. Stargazers expect a similar outburst during next week’s Perseid meteor shower, which will be visible overnight on Aug. 11 and 12.
Contacts and sources:
Dr. Robert Massey
Dr Sam Lindsay
Royal Astronomical Society
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