Perseid meteor showers deliver stunning summer show
Summer is the peak entertainment season of the year as people file into movie theatres, music festivals, and community events to make the most of the short window between June and September.
But anyone looking for an exciting mid-August summer show can look no further than the sky above, as the annual Perseid Meteor Shower makes its return to the skies over the Northern Hemisphere. The shower peaks between August 10th and 13th, but don’t worry if you miss it. The meteor shower ramps up/down for days or even weeks prior to the peak, and “green fireballs” have already been reported in the skies over Vancouver.
While this celestial event occurs annually in mid-August, this year promises to be more extraordinary than usual.
“The Perseids are generally the ‘richest’ annual shower, with an average of 100 meteors/hour in dark skies at peak,” says Dr. Gregory Arkos, Professor of Physics, Engineering, and Astronomy at Vancouver Island University. “This year, thanks to some gravitational tweaks to the debris field that is the origin of the Perseids, some experts are predicting 150 or more meteors per hour.”
This debris field is left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, and as Earth passes through this field the dust-sized particles are burned up in our atmosphere. Arkos explains that while these particles are small, they enter Earth’s atmosphere at around 180,000 km/h, creating the spectacular streaks of light that we know as meteors or shooting stars.
“Because of the time of year and the motion of the Earth, the meteors appear to originate from a point located in the constellation of Perseus, hence their name,” Arkos says. “However, despite seeming to zip away from Perseus, the meteors themselves are visible throughout the sky.”
Luckily, everyone from astronomy enthusiasts to the mildly-curious can take in the spectacle without having to rely on expensive equipment. The meteors are best viewed with the naked eye rather than a telescope, but the keys to optimal viewing are timing, location, and a lack of light interference.
“The best viewing is from dark sites and when the Moon is low or absent from the sky. As a result, this year the best viewing should be in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, Aug 12th once the Moon has (nearly) set,” Arkos says. “The best viewing position is comfortably reclined (lawn chair or equivalent), in a darkish location.”
“With Vancouver’s light pollution, the fainter Persiens will be difficult to see [from within the city]; however, brighter meteors should still be visible.” So don’t worry if you can’t make it out of the city. There should still be something for everyone.
Sky watchers will also want to keep their eyes dark-adapted, and that means no white light, and no checking the cell phone. While this may be a daunting sacrifice to the tech-addicted, the payoffs are huge. You can miss the meteors while are texting your friends about meteors, or text friends later about the amazing meteors that you just saw.
And for those among us who enjoy the science fiction thrillers about Earth-threatening meteors potentially causing catastrophic damage (Deep Impact, Armageddon, etc.), we can leave our concerns in the realm of sci-fi.
“Even larger Perseids, which can result in larger fireballs or meteors which last for several seconds, are still small bits of material which burn up harmlessly in the Earth’s atmosphere,” Arkos explains.
So sit back, look up, and enjoy the show worry-free.
The Perseid meteor shower is showing now in a sky near you. Admission is free and it is open to all ages.