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The Perseid meteor shower

Virtualastro, Contributor
Aug 5, 2013, 23:00 UTC

Sen—Of all the annual meteor showers, the Perseid meteor shower is the most anticipated and prolific of the year and the highlight of the summer astronomy calendar.

The Perseids start in late July, peak around August 12th and end mid August. They are probably the most popular meteor shower because they occur in one of the warmest months of the year in the northern hemisphere. Some people get friends around, fire up the barbecue and have Perseid parties, or just look up and enjoy a warm and pleasant meteor watching experience - as long as it’s clear.

The Perseids originate from the debris trail left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the Sun every 133 years. The particles of dust and rock are known as meteoroids and every year in August our planet collides with this debris stream causing the meteoroids to burn up as meteors -- also known as shooting stars -- in our atmosphere. If you are interested in learning more about this please read Space Rocks Comets, Asteroids, Meteorites and More.

Perseid meteors are basically bright streaks of light that shoot across the sky in a blink of an eye. These shooting stars can sometimes be very bright becoming what are known as fireballs and the Perseids can have plenty of them. The Perseid meteor shower at its peak around August 12th can produce in excess of 100 meteors per hour ranging from faint “blink and you miss it” meteors to bright cosmic fireworks lighting up the sky.

The Perseids and other meteor showers get their name from the constellation they appear to originate in, known as the radiant, and for the Perseids this is in the constellation of Perseus. Many guides concentrate on or direct you to this area for observing the meteors, but this isn’t the best way of spotting them and you would miss many. The radiant is where the shower emanates from -- its point of origin -- but it is not where the most meteors can be seen.

Perseid meteor shower diagram

Artist illustration of the Perseid Radiant. Credit: Virtualastro

Meteor watching is very simple and fun to do and one of the key things is to allow plenty of time to hunt for meteors (30 minutes or more) and to be comfortable. Make sure you are dressed accordingly as it can get quite cold in the heart of night, even in August.

You don’t need any equipment like a telescope or binoculars, just your eyes. It can make things a lot easier if you can lie on a reclining garden chair or on a blanket on the ground, so you can keep your gaze on the sky without looking away too much. Many people use garden trampolines to lie on. If you look away, that’s when you can miss the best meteors. Climb into a sleeping bag, have some hot soup, drink and food, anything to make your observing more pleasant and comfortable. You need to keep looking up, blink and you miss it!

Contrary to a lot of meteor observing guides, there is no particular direction to look for Perseid meteors as they appear at random in any part of the sky. Try to get away from lights or street lights, look up and try to fill your gaze. You won’t be able to fit the whole sky in your gaze so try to scan as much as you can, but try to keep looking up.

On or near the peak (a day or so either side) of August 12th should be good for seeing the Perseids as long as you have a clear sky. You will be looking for streaks of light shooting across the sky in less than a second, but some big meteors and fireballs can last a few seconds and be very impressive. If you trace the meteors path back to the radiant in Perseus, you have seen a Perseid.

While looking up you may see a number of other objects including:

Sporadic meteors -- meteors that are not associated with a meteor shower which appear in the sky from a different point of origin to the Perseids.

The Milky Way -- if you have dark enough skies or have allowed yourself plenty of time to dark adapt your eyes, you will see a thick milky band stretching across the sky. This is the Milky Way as we look into it – our home galaxy.

Flashing and fading lights and lights that move across the sky -- these objects are satellites or bits of space junk or rocket stages that are in orbit. Some fade in and out or flash because they spin or tumble.

The ISS -- If you are observing in the UK and parts of Europe during the Perseid meteor shower you will be able to see the International Space Station (ISS) pass over like a bright fast moving star. An amazing sight to see -- check out our guide as to how to watch and photograph the International Space Station

Perseid meteor shower

Artist illustration of the Perseid meteor shower. Credit: Virtualastro

The best time to go out looking for Perseids is later in the evening through to dawn and many can be seen throughout the whole night around the peak on August 12th. Luckily this year there will be little interference from the Moon.

Enjoy the Perseid Meteor Shower and let’s hope we have clear skies.