The best meteor shower of the year is upon us, the annual Perseid Meteor shower. The Perseid’s meteors are bits of dust and material from Comet Swift-Tuttle. As the comet orbits the Sun every 133 years, it releases trillions of particles into space into what we generally would see as it’s “tail”. These particles litter the path of the comet and if the Earth passes through that path the particles burn up in our atmosphere as a meteor.
The path of the comet is not consistent though. Tugs from the planets or out gassing from the comet itself can slightly change the comet’s orbit. Jupiter can also tug on the meteor streams and cause them to bend or move as they orbit the Sun. Over time these forces cause the particles to spread out into a general meteor field. Thus we have a broad general meteor field, created from ancient passes of the comet. With in the field, there are denser meteor streams from the comet’s more recent orbits. In most years, Earth passes through the field of meteor’s, but doesn’t pass through the core of a denser stream. This generally creates about 100 meteors per hour at peak.
Thanks to computing power that has only been around since the 1990’s, NASA scientist are predicting the Earth will pass near not just one, but possibly three meteor streams, thanks to tugs the streams have gotten from Jupiter! For observers on Earth that means this could be an “outburst” year, with up to 200 meteors per hour! The last outburst year was in 2009.
Observing the Shower
To observe this meteor shower you’ll want to go somewhere without city lights.
The constellation of Perseus (where the meteors seem to come from) rises about 10pm local time, thus the first of the meteors will begin to arrive around that time. These early meteors will be few in number, but tend to be long and bright. The peak hours will be between 2am-4am local times, with number possibly continuing to rise closer to sunrise.
The Moon will be just passed the First Quarter on the night of the peak, but thankfully it will set around 1:20am in Arkansas and thus be out of the way during the peak of the shower.
To watch the shower doesn’t require any equipment, just lay out a lawn chair or blanket and lay back and look at the sky. While the meteors will appear to come from the NE (you can trace the meteors and they’ll all point back to Perseus) it doesn’t matter which direction you look in.
If you aren’t able to watch the shower on the night of the peak 11th / 12th, the Perseids have a gradual rise and thus meteor counts the few nights before and the night after should be high as well.
See our Perseids 2016 Page for a summary and predicted rates for Arkansas.
We also have our Meteor Photography Page for tips on how to photograph the shower.