Have you heard that the Perseid meteor showers are visible this week?  Before you head outside with a blanket and a bottle of wine, here are a few things you should know:

  • A meteor, or shooting star, occurs when space debris enters our atmosphere.  The friction with our air causes the dust and rocks to glow, and most of them burn up before they hit the Earth’s surface.
  • We see meteors when the Earth’s orbit brings us into the path of space debris.  Since the Earth’s orbit is regular, we see meteor showers at the same time each year.  The Perseids are visible from mid-July to late August every summer, and are usually touted as the year’s best.
  • The space debris that we bump into for the Perseid meteor showers comes from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, and the bits and pieces of this comet debris can move through our atmosphere at 130,000 mph!
  • Normally, we graze along the very edge of the comet rubble, but Jupiter’s strong gravitational pull may tug the loose rocks a little closer to us this year, resulting in more meteors than usual.  This is why all the headlines are predicting a very high number of meteors for this Thursday and Friday.
  • Predicted rates claim we could see 100-200 meteors per hour, which would really light up the night sky.  Cross your fingers that we’ll slam into a particularly dense cloud of debris!

To watch this year’s Perseid super show, head outside Thursday at midnight for as long as you can stay awake, or wake up early Friday to sneak a peak at the pre-dawn sky. Get as far away from all artificial lights as you can, give your eyes a good long time to adjust to the dark and then just lie back and look straight up.  Friday night into Saturday morning should also provide great views.  If you can’t make it outside on those nights, don’t worry.  Although the peak is this weekend, the meteor shower will continue through August 24, so keep your eyes on the night sky for the next couple of weeks and you should be able to spot some shooting stars.

Want to take your astronomy discussions to the next level?  Here are some facts that are out of this world!

  • Comet Swift-Tuttle has an oblong and very eccentric orbit that takes it outside the orbit of Pluto when farthest from the sun, and inside the Earth’s orbit when closest to the sun.  It takes about 133 years to orbit the sun.  Every time the Comet Swift-Tuttle passes through the inner solar system, the sun warms and softens up the ices in the comet, causing it to release fresh comet material into its orbital stream.
  • NASA states that the meteors pose no threat to our planet as they tend to burn up 50 miles above the surface, reaching temperatures from 3,000 to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Meteor showers are named for the area of the sky where they originate from.  In this case, the constellation Perseus marks the spot where we see them appear.  In Greek mythology, Perseus was a brave hero who accomplished many difficult tasks, including beheading Medusa (monster with snakes for her hair) and saving Princess Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus.