If you like shooting stars (and who doesn’t??), the next several nights are a great time to get outside to enjoy the night sky. That’s because, between now and into next week, the Perseid meteor shower is active. Which means there will be a lot more shooting stars than usual! But a “shooting star” is not a star at all. Read on to find out more.
“It is hard to believe that such a tiny particle can create such a bright flash!”
This year promises to be especially good because the moon sets relatively early in the evening now, so it won’t interfere too much with faint light of a typical shooting star. Also, based on some complex gravitational effects by the planet Jupiter, astronomers are predicting that the Perseids (I pronounce this “per-see-ids”) will be very active. That’s a great combination for shooting star enthusiasts!
Consequently, the Perseids promise to give us a great show. But…where can you see them? There are two answers. The first relates to “where in the night sky will you see them?” Answer: the Perseids appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus (that is why they are called “Perseids”). Even if you are a night-sky geek like me, you may not have heard of Perseus because it is not a prominent constellation (like my personal favorite, Orion). However, if you look to the north-northeast after the sun sets, you will be looking in the general direction of Perseus, and this is where the shooting stars will appear to come from.
The second answer relates to “where can I get a view of the night sky?” Answer: well, that depends on where you live. Wherever that is, try to find the darkest night sky you can. The darker, the better. Ideally, that would be someplace with limited light pollution. Unfortunately, truly dark skies are difficult to find these days. The bottom line: go wherever you can to spend some time outside at night looking up. If you do, chances are good that you’ll see the fleeting streak of a shooting star.
A “shooting star” is not a star at all!
By the way, if you are curious like me, you might ask, why does the Perseid meteor shower occur in August each year? Well, that is a really interesting question! The answer lies in the fact that shooting stars are made of comet dust, some pieces no larger than a grain of sand! As a comet orbits the sun, it gives off comet dust. Then, when the Earth passes through the dust lane from a comet, the tiny particles burn upon entry into the Earth’s atmosphere to create a streaking meteor. It is hard to believe that such a tiny particle can create such a bright flash! The Perseids result from a comet known as Swift-Tuttle. So, when you see a Perseid, you are not looking at a “shooting star,” but instead you are seeing the beautiful end to some specks of debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Pretty cool!
Finally, if you’ve read this far, you will want to know when you can see the Perseids. Answer: anytime over the next several nights will give you an increased chance for meteors, but the peak is predicted to occur in the evening of August 11. You can maximize the number you see by viewing after midnight. So, over the next several nights, get yourself to the darkest location you can find with an open view to the north or northeast. Obviously, you’ll need to have relatively clear skies free of clouds. Good luck! And let me know if you see any Perseids. I’ll be looking!
The accompanying image contains a Perseid meteor that I captured several years ago when I was visiting the Bristlecone Pine forest in the White Mountains of California with my brother. In the foreground, you can see the uprooted remains of a Bristlecone Pine tree. The streak in the upper right corner is a Perseid meteor. The Andromeda galaxy (Google it!) is a bonus in this image. It is the tiny, tiny smudge of light near the middle of the image that is in line with the meteor streak. Enjoy!