Perseids – Nature’s Annual Light Show

Photograph courtesy of reway2007 via a Creative Commons license.
Photograph courtesy of reway2007 via a Creative Commons license.

Whenever I think of meteor showers, I think years back to a perfect moment. I was crashed out with friends on a sandy beach alongside the Tuolumne River during a 2-day white water rafting trip. We were enjoying a balmy summer night as we lay on top of our sleeping bags, looking up at the amazing display of stars in a sky free of city light pollution. As we chatted and sipped wine, I noticed an incredibly bright “shooting star” flaming across the sky. Then another. And another. I’d never seen so many “shooting stars” (meteors). I stayed up most of the night to watch the nearly continuous celestial display. When I got home, I learned that it was actually an annual event – the prolific Perseid meteor shower.

Meteor showers can appear anywhere in the sky. But if you trace their path, the meteors appear to come from the same region in the sky. In the case of the Perseids, the meteors appear to originate from the constellation Perseus.

Meteor showers are caused by comets. As a comet orbits the Sun, it sheds a debris stream of ice and dust along its orbit. When Earth travels through this cloud of debris, the bits of interplanetary rock strike the Earth’s upper atmosphere where they are heated by friction and ignited.

The Perseid meteor shower comes from the Swift-Tuttle, a huge comet with a nucleus of 26 km and meteoroids hitting our atmosphere at 132,000 mph. According to new research by NASA, the Perseids are the most prolific meteor shower. The number of resulting meteors can top 100 per hour.

Although the meteor shower is active for several days, the peak will happen tonight through the early hours of tomorrow morning. A crescent moon will set shortly after midnight, leaving the skies dark for optimal viewing until pre-dawn. You just need to search out a secluded spot away from the glow of city lights, like a state or city park, then lie back and enjoy the show.

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