by William J. Bechaver
EARTH — As the winter constellations creep into the early morning eastern sky, it is merely a portent of the end of summer and the approach of autumn. With that comes the more substantial meteor showers, with longer nights and darker skies, ideal for viewing them.
This year’s Perseid meteor shower promises to be very exceptional. The meteor shower peaks this week, and with the moon in its early phases and setting early, viewing should be spectacular.
Go out any evening this week after the moon has set in the western sky to avoid any light interference it may lend. Look in the eastern sky. As the evening progresses, your chances of seeing more meteors increases.
A meteor shower is caused by icy particles that are left behind from the tails of passing comets. As Earth’s orbit carries the planet through the field of remnant particles, they impact on our upper atmosphere, burning up in brilliant flashes and streaks of light.
Though the Perseids are usually the best display of the summer, this year’s promises to be even more spectacular than usual. The particles were left behind by the passing of the parent comet Swift-Tuttle.
This year, the gravitational influence of Jupiter has pushed the debris field further into the path of the Earth, increasing the density of the particles, and the number of impacts to be witnessed. This year, the peak night is on Thursday, August 11. The moon sets just after midnight, so any time after that, go out and begin to look to the east. The later you can go out, the better are your chances of seeing multiple meteor impacts every minute.
Scientists predict that this year, an observer could witness up to 150 meteors an hour, which is nearly three every minute! That is an extreme rate, even for the Perseids.
Remember, meteors are irregular. Give it a couple minutes for your eyes to adjust. There may be stretches of several minutes where you will see no meteors, followed by bursts of several within seconds of each other. So, be persistent, and diligent. Go out several times after midnight, and before the eastern sky begins to lighten, and enjoy the greatest show in nature.
And if the weather doesn’t cooperate on the peak night, remember, meteor showers persist through several nights. The Perseids could continue for several weeks, so at your earliest convenience, go out on a cloudless, moonless night, and catch the elusive Perseid meteor shower as they continue into the early morning hours.
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