MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The Perseid Meteor Shower is one of the most popular meteor showers of the year thanks to its timing (Warm weather! Summer vacation!), and the reliability of a good show. As a NASA scientist explains, “the Perseids are typically fast and bright meteors that frequently leave trails.” When the meteor shower reaches its peak — during the nights of August 11-12, and August 12-13 — you can see up to 60 to 70 shooting stars per hour. Before then, if you live in a suitably dark area and have some patience, you may still be able to see a few shooting stars per hour.
Meteors are the streaks of light created when items in space burn up in the earth’s atmosphere. These items can be man-made, like a dying communications satellite, or naturally occurring, like the Perseids. Each year between July 17th and August 24th earth’s orbit crosses through a debris trail left in space by Comet Swift-Tuttle. This “comet dust” contains particles that range from the size of a sand grain up to the size of Grape-Nuts cereal. Travelling at over 133,000 miles per hour, these particles reach more than 3,000°F and burn up as they move into earth’s atmosphere, creating the streaks of light we see as meteors, or shooting stars. The geometry of earth’s orbit makes it seem like these shooting stars are emanating from the constellation Perseus, hence the name “Perseid Meteor Shower.”
Because the earth is already moving into Swift-Tuttle’s debris field you may be able to see a few shooting stars even now, but the Waning Gibbous moon may prove bright enough to blot them out even in a dark, outlying area. You may prefer to wait until the evening of August 9th or after, when the moon will be just a sliver in the sky and won’t rise until around 3:50am CDT.
A new moon (i.e. no moonlight) will occur on August 11th, the first night of the peak of the meteor shower, making 2018 a great year to watch!
TIPS FOR THE BEST VIEW
In the Twin Cities, look for the source of the meteors (or “radiant”) about 30° above the northeastern horizon at midnight (click here to check a different location).
Here are a few more viewing tips from EarthSky.org to help you make the most of your Perseid-viewing evening:
- Find a dark, open sky to enjoy the show. An open sky is essential because these meteors fly across the sky in many different directions and in front of numerous constellations.
- Give yourself at least an hour of observing time, for these meteors in meteor showers come in spurts and are interspersed with lulls. Remember, your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night. So don’t rush the process.
- Know that the meteors all come from a single point in the sky. If you trace the paths of the Perseid meteors backwards, you’d find they all come from a point in front of the constellation Perseus. Don’t worry about which stars are Perseus. Just enjoying knowing and observing that they all come from one place in the sky.
METEORS ON TOUR
If you’d like a free guided tour of the Perseid Meteor Shower, the University of Minnesota Duluth is hitting the road with their Dark Sky Caravan. Volunteers will travel up Highway 61 and the Gunflint Trail from August 11 – 18, stopping at a new destination each day. Attendees will be able to experience digital space exploration with University of Minnesota Duluth staff and students, including daily planetarium shows.
For more information on destinations and times, visit the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium online.
For a cool 3D visualization of how the earth and comets interact to create meteor showers, visit meteorshowers.org.