Our Window on Nature

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Perseid Perfection

Filed under: Sky — Lowell Christie -- August 7, 2007 @ 4:27 pm

PerseidsWhat more could you ask? Warm summer weather — a new moon (the darkest night) — and one of the most consistent meteor showers of the year. If you’re willing to give up a little sleep, this weekend should be a wonderful show.

On the night of August 12th and the morning of August 13th the Perseid meteor shower should reach its maximum, with the potential of over a meteor a minute. The display occurs as the earth passes through the debris trail left by the Swift-Tuttle comet.

Small meteors enter the earth’s atmosphere every day, but only during a meteor shower do enough appear that you can be sure of seeing them. We actually entered the edge of the Swift-Tuttle trail back in mid-July, so the number of shooting stars has been increasing nightly. If you can’t catch the featured event on Sunday night and/or Monday morning, there are still more meteors than usual just before and after that date.

On August 12th (Sunday) the show gets a slow start around 9:00 pm with what are called Earthgrazers. According to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office these are “long, slow and colorful; they are among the most beautiful of meteors,” but you will probably only see several of them per hour.

The frequency of meteors keeps improving throughout the night, with the most concentrated portion of the shower occurring before dawn on Monday morning. Although some of the brightest meteors will be visible from urban locations, try to get away from city lights. Give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness, and then watch the darkest portion of the sky.

The photograph of the Perseid Meteor Fireball shown above was taken at Joshua Tree National Park by Wally Pacholka in 1999. Winner of both a Time Magazine and a Life Magazine “Picture of the Year” award, Wally has a spectacular web site featuring comet and meteor photography. Check it out at http://www.AstroPics.com/.

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