With all the talk about the coming solar eclipse, the Perseid meteor shower — one of the year’s best — has been left in the dust. But it’s time to forget about the sun for a while and focus on “shooting stars.”
Though we can see meteors on any given night, almost every month we’re treated to a significant meteor shower. We get these as Earth plows through the debris left over from passing comets. As small cometary debris enters our atmosphere, it burns up briefly, appearing as bright streaks in the sky.
In the case of the Perseids, Earth is whizzing through particles left over from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last passed us in 1992.
- Fireball spotted shooting across southern B.C. sky
- A bird? A plane? Edwin’s home run? Nope. A meteor
The meteor shower has already begun, as it runs from mid-July to the end of August each year. But as we near the peak, which occurs on Saturday, the number of meteors per hour increases. On the peak night, you may see as many as 50 to 100 meteors per hour in a dark-sky location.
However, there is a downside to this year’s shower: the moon. Unfortunately, it will rise around 11 p.m. — about 70 per cent of it illuminated — washing out all but the brightest meteors.
A composite of the Perseid meteor shower, on the peak night, Aug 11/12, 2016, looking northeast to the radiant point in the constellation Perseus, left of centre. (Image © Alan Dyer)
Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t head out to try and catch some meteors. You’ll be able to see them increase in numbers a few days ahead of the peak and continue in the days following it.
While the best time to catch some meteors is after midnight and into the wee hours of the morning, the moon won’t give you that chance. Instead, try to head out before moonrise (you can check here for your particular location).
There’s no equipment needed for this celestial event. If possible, just find a dark place away from city lights, lie down and look up. And stay off that phone! The light will prevent your eyes from adapting to the dark, which can take as long as an hour in some cases. The better your eyes are adapted to the dark, the better the chance you’ll have of catching faint meteors.
If you happen to catch some meteors, you may notice that they’re emerging from one particular point, called the radiant. In this case, it’s the constellation Perseus, hence the name of the shower.
Last year, we experienced an outburst of Perseid meteors with more than usual streaking across the sky. Unfortunately, no such outburst is expected this year.