Over the coming nights, be sure to look to the sky, as the peak of one of the most active and impressive meteor showers is taking place: the Perseids.
Earth is no stranger to falling dust and rock particles, remnants from the formation of our solar system. As they enter the atmosphere, the (normally) small particles burn up and create the telltale sign of a “shooting star.”
But there are larger bodies left over from our formation: asteroids and comets. And every so often, Earth passes through the stream of debris they leave behind as they orbit the sun. This is what gives us meteor showers, a time where far more of that dust burns up in our atmosphere, creating a wonderful light show.
While there’s a major meteor shower every month, there’s nothing quite like the Perseid shower for those in the northern hemisphere, with the warm summer nights and better chances of clear skies. And this year, Canada is in a particularly favourable position for the peak night of Aug. 12–13.
“The Perseids this year are ideal from a sky standpoint,” said Peter Brown, professor and Canada Research Chair at Western University’s physics and astronomy department in London, Ont.
“The moon is only a few days before new, so we’ve got dark skies. The peak basically favours North America this year. So the early morning hours of Sunday the 13th, and the night of the 12th should be right in the middle of peak Perseid activity.”
Though the peak occurs on Saturday night into Sunday morning, you can still keep an eye out in the coming days.
‘Worth staying up for’
The Perseids are a result of Earth plowing through debris shed from Comet Swift-Tuttle, which is roughly 30-kilometres in diameter. It last swung by Earth in 1992, and while it has come relatively close to the planet in the past, it’s important to note that it poses no danger to us.
Like most meteor showers, the Perseids gets its name from its radiant, or the constellation from which the meteors appear to be originating, in this case, Perseus.
But that doesn’t mean you need to look in the direction of the constellation to see meteors: You simply need to look up. And no equipment is needed, just your own eyes.
Try this interactive map showing how Earth passes through the meteor shower:
“You should easily be able to see one meteor a minute in the early morning hours of Sunday, Aug. 13,” said Brown. “There should be a fair number of bright meteors — the Perseids are known for quite a good number of fireballs … It’s a good display, it’s worth staying up for.”
Perseus rises in the east at roughly 10 p.m. local time, but the peak of the meteor shower lasts the entire night. The best time to catch the most meteors is in the wee hours of Sunday morning, before the sun rises.
However, if you’re not a night owl — or prefer not to set your alarm for an early wake-up — you could still be in for a treat Saturday night. That’s because, although the radiant will be low on the eastern horizon at around 10 p.m., the Perseids tend to do something spectacular.
“You see grazing meteors, meteors that are coming in at very low entry angle, and they sweep over the whole sky,” said Brown. “And they’re some of the most spectacular things you’ll see, because they last — still only a few tenths of a second — but they stream over a huge part of the sky. So that’s sort of the intro to the fireworks, and then it sort of ramps up throughout the night and it’ll just get progressively better right through until dawn.”
Meteor viewing tips
As always, the key to getting the most out of your Perseid-viewing experience is to get to as dark a location as possible. The darker the sky, the fainter meteors you’ll be able to see. Put away your cellphones, as the light will make it more difficult for your eyes to adapt to the dark. And just try to keep your eyes skyward.
The challenge comes for those who live in cities, which is most Canadians. But that’s the great thing about the Perseids: They tend to produce fireballs, or extremely bright meteors. Still, if you can get to a park or even your backyard, should you have one, turn off the lights and look up.
So, how many can you expect? Western University launched its new new Perseids meteor monitoring website, which allows the public to get a better idea.
Most meteor showers produce anywhere from five to 50 meteors an hour under ideal conditions (clear, moonless skies with the radiant overhead), referred to as the ZHR Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR). But there are a few — including the Perseids — that can produce 100 to 150 meteors an hour.
The website gives an idea of the ZHR over a 24–hour period. But, for city-dwellers in particular, Brown advises to cut that number in half.
“It’ll probably be one every three or four minutes or five minutes,” he said. “So it’s not going to be a lot. But you’ll see the brighter ones.”
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