Summer 2020 has been exciting for stargazers. They have been treated to a once-in-a-lifetime visit from comet NEOWISE and had the rare opportunity to observe five planets and a full moon simultaneously, among other celestial events. Now, to top it all off, come the Perseids — the biggest and most spectacular meteor showers of the year.
The shooting stars have been streaking across the skies at a rate of about a dozen an hour since mid-July. However, their pace will escalate sharply next week, reaching a peak of between fifty to a hundred meteors an hour on August 11, 12, and 13, 2020.
Since the moon will be in its last quarter phase during the peak mornings, the moonlight may make it a little harder to observe the fainter meteors. The experts at Earthsky.org, therefore, suggest looking for them after midnight but before moonrise. They also recommend standing behind a large structure or natural object, like a barn, cabin, or a mountain, that can shield you from the bright moonlight. If none of these tactics work, you can look for the meteors after August 17, 2020, when there will be no moon to mar your views. Though the Perseids will not be as active, they will be visible for at least ten days after the peak.
Stargazers are also advised to settle in an area where the entire dome of the sky is visible and, most importantly, to be patient. That's because it takes the eye between 10 to 15 minutes to get accustomed to the dark skies and then as long, or even longer, to see a flashing meteor. And finally, leave the telescopes and binoculars at home, the natural fireworks are best viewed with bare eyes.
Though often referred to as "shooting" or "falling" stars, meteors are remains of cosmic dust and dirt left behind by comets traveling through the area. When the debris collides with the Earth's atmosphere at high speeds, it burns, resulting in a flash that resembles shiny stars streaking through the skies, or what we call meteors.
The Perseids, which get their name from the constellation Perseus from where they appear to spurt, are the trail of dust left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle as it zips past Earth during its 133-year-long orbit around the Sun. Though the comet's next visit will not be until 2126, the debris shed over the past 1000 years is enough to guarantee us an annual meteor shower until then. The Perseids' consistently impressive annual performance can be attributed to Earth passing close to the center of the comet's debris stream, where the dust is the densest, every August. Though visible worldwide, due to Swift-Tuttle's orbital pattern, the best views are reserved for the residents of the Northern Hemisphere.
Besides being the most reliable of all meteor showers, the Perseids also produce the highest number of fireballs — meteors as bright as Jupiter and Venus. NASA scientists, who have nicknamed the Perseids "fireball champions," believe the dazzling meteors are a result of Swift-Tuttle's massive, 16-mile-wide (26-km-wide) nucleus. They suspect it leaves behind hundreds of meteoroids, many of which are large enough to produce fireballs. Be sure to mark your calendars to catch nature's impressive fireworks show next week, and don't forget to make a wish or two — they are bound to come true!
Resources: cbsnews.com, earthsky.org, cnet.com