Question: I hear there’s gonna be some kind of major meteor shower this month. Sounds like fun. When and where can I see it? — JD, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, CO
Answer: What you heard about is the annual Perseid meteor shower. This year the peak of activity will be from midnight, August 12th to dawn, August 13th. The Moon will be up, interfering somewhat with your view, but you should still be able to see the brighter meteors. Watch for most of the action in the northeast.
The Perseid meteors all come from a cloud of debris left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle. This debris orbits the Sun, as does the Earth, but it’s orbit is elongated and tilted in a different plane. The debris is spread out along the whole orbit, similar to Saturn’s rings, but there are places where it tends to clump up more. When Earth hits one of these clumps the rate of activity can exceed a meteor-per-minute.
Every August Earth passes through this belt of debris and, like when you drive a car into rain or snow, it all seems to be coming straight at you from directly ahead. With meteor showers, that point is called the radiant. The faint constellation Perseus is located in that direction, hence the name Perseid.
This debris consists of tiny particles of rock, metal and ice, all of which hit our atmosphere at about 37 miles/second! With that incredible speed most burn up from friction, ionizing the air to the point where it glows, and create the bright streaks commonly called “shooting stars.”
So get out your lawn chair, and find a dark location with a clear view of the whole sky. Then settle in for the night, and prepare for one of Nature’s greatest fireworks displays.