Perseid Meteor Shower 2009by Logical Lizard on Aug. 04, 2009, under Astronomy & Space Program, Meteorite Science, Technology
When I lived in New York it was always something of a production to catch one of the annual meteor showers. City lights and pollution drown out those wispy, fast-moving flashes, created when little particles of the cosmos incinerate in our atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour. Sometimes I’d travel far upstate to get away from the glaring illumination of the metro area. One year I drove out to Robert Moses State Park on Long Island, camped on the beach with friends, and gazed at meteor trails while trying to keep warm with hot toddys.
In 2002 I spent I spent a long November night, embalmed in multiple heavy wool blankets on a friend’s private lakeside dock waiting for the Leonids to appear. It was way below freezing and at around 1 am my buddies called it a night and hiked back to their cabin. I decided to tough it out, and perhaps thirty minutes later the sky exploded with a spectacular display of scores shooting stars, just for me. You have to really love stargazing to go to such lengths. These days it’s a lot easier. I just park a deck chair in my Arizona garden and mix a cocktail. Thank you Tucson Dark-Sky ordinance!
The known meteor showers take place at the same time every year, and what colorful names they have: Quadrantids, Kappa Serpentids, Lyrids, and Alpha Scorpiids, among others. The Leonids and the Perseids are the best known, as they typically produce the greatest numbers of shooting stars. The showers occur when our planet passes through trails of cometary debris. Every August we encounter a cloud of tiny fragments of ice and rock left drifting in space by Swift-Tuttle—a periodic comet that reappeared in the night sky in 1992 after an absence of 130 years.
Although the meteors we see every August originated from Comet Swift-Tuttle’s icy heart, they appear—as a result of an optical illusion—to emanate from the constellation Perseus, hence their name: the Perseids. The annual showers do not produce meteorites (any part of a meteor that survives and makes it to the earth) as the meteor-producing fragments burn up in the air. But don’t worry, somebody calls us every year to tell us they found one of the Perseids in their driveway and it’ll happen again this year, for sure.
Perseid meteors can be seen from early August well to the middle of the month. The period of maximum activity, or peak, is expected to occur during the night of August 11 and into the morning of August 12. Typically, the later it gets, the greater the number of visible meteors, with the largest number often occurring a few hours before dawn. If you are eager and dedicated enough to stay up into the wee hours, it should be possible to see one or more shooting stars per minute.
The Perseids hit our atmosphere at an extremely high speed—an incredible 130,000 miles per hour! The resulting trails are particularly bright, and sometimes vapor can be seen hanging in the air for a few seconds after a shooting star has burned up.
The best way to observe the Perseids is to find an area with dark skies and no distractions, and recline in a comfortable chair so you can view as much of the sky as possible. After midnight, the constellation of Perseus will be in the northeast for observers in Arizona. Turn off the lights, kick back, treat yourself to a favorite tipple, and watch the skies. It’s the greatest show not on this earth, it is absolutely free, and completely devoid of commercial interruption. Stellar.