Each August the night sky lights up with falling stars. A lot of falling stars actually. This years Perseids meteor shower peaks Sunday (8/11) and Monday (8/12), promising perhaps 70 meteors an hour on those two nights. Get your lawn chairs, telescopes and night cameras out for some great viewing.
The shower gets its name from the constellation Perseus, where the meteors are believed to have originated. Perseus was the hero of ancient Greece, born from a shower of heavenly gold.
These real life objects can travel at nearly 134,000 mph, filling the sky with fireballs of light. It’s their speed that creates their amazing beauty as the meteors hit the upper atmosphere of Earth. Bill Cooke of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. explains “It’s also because of the size of the meteors,” which help to create their brilliance. The dust grains are about one-fifth of an inch across and burn nicely as they zip overhead.
The dust grains are actually part of another space event, as they come from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which circles the sun once every 133 years and leaves behind a debris trail. The Perseid Meteor’s pass through the trail and pick up some of that dust in their wake.
Comets are basically giant snowballs that are packed with rock and dust from distant worlds in our Galaxy. As a comet comes close to a sun, they begin to melt creating a tail that can be quite beautiful in their own right.
The best viewing times for the Perseid Meteor show is after midnight and before dawn. Particularly after the half-full moon sets at 1 a.m. on Monday, says Astronomy magazine’s Michael Bakich. But they should appear at night during the week before and after the peak as well.