The meteors are coming! The meteors are coming! In 1775 Paul Revere rode through the countryside heralding an arrival that would change the course of history, having been warned about it by the shining of two lights, visible in the night sky. Of course, they were lanterns in the belfry of the Old North Church, and the arrival wasn't a meteor event, it was hordes of British soldiers, but all over the news the past few days has been the announcement of the annual arrival of the Perseid meteor shower with similar enthusiasm. Every year, from roughly late July to mid-August there are hundreds of shooting stars blowing out of the constellation Perseus and like the arrival of the British, it's not something that should be missed.
But just how does a meteor shower happen? In the case of the Perseids, the Earth's orbit coincides with a trail of debris that streamed behind the Comet Swift-Tuttle. While the comet hasn't been in Earth's celestial neighborhood for over 23 years, the debris remains, floating around in the sky. When the Earth passes near this debris field, the particles of dust, rocks and other objects burn up and produce a brief, bright streak of light that careens across the constellation, capturing the attention, and possibly wishes, of those who catch a glimpse of it.
While it's not uncommon for a shooting star to happen every once in a while on any given evening, the size of the comet tail makes the Perseids an event, because of the number times it will happen over a course of a few days.
How many times? NASA estimates there will be between 80-100 shooting stars per hour at the peak times, which they expect to be the evening of Wednesday August 12th, overnight into the wee hours of the morning on Thursday August 13th. This year promises to be an even better viewing opportunity because of the lunar cycle. The peak evening falls when there is a new moon, so there will be less light in the sky to obscure the show.
While there other meteor showers during the year such as the Leonids in November and the Geminids in December, in many parts of the world, it's more likely that storms and cloud cover will spoil the viewing. It can also be too cold for those who want to hang around looking for shooting stars. In an interview with USA Today, Bruce McClure, an astronomer with Earthsky.org said, "This major shower takes place during the lazy, hazy days of summer, when many families are on vacation." He also noted that it's an easy activity for many families since there is no high tech equipment required to see them. McClure went on to caution viewers to give it time, saying, "Remember, your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to truly adapt to the darkness of night so don't rush the process."
Do you plan to venture out in the dark to see the meteor shower? Check out the video below to get more information. Happy Star gazing!
I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.