In the month of August, we are treated to one of the most spectacular sights in the astronomical calendar: the Perseids meteor shower! Widely regarded as the biggest meteor shower of the year, the Perseids can produce displays of up to 150 meteors an hour. You don’t want to miss out on this opportunity!
What is a meteor shower?
When a meteor shower is active, it means there will be more ‘shooting stars’ in the sky. This is the colloquial term for meteor, and refers to the bright streak of light you see when a rocky body burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. On an average night, it’s normal to see a couple of meteors an hour. But when a meteor shower occurs, these meteors originate in the same place.
Most asteroids and rocky bodies orbit the Sun in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter, or the Kuiper Belt, at the edge of the solar system. They don’t often leave it, but sometimes comets from the outer solar system travel closer to the Sun and reach the inner planets. These comets leave a trail of debris behind them which can overlap with the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. Meteor showers occur when the Earth moves through the debris, and it burns up in our atmosphere.
You can learn more about meteors in our previous article on the Lyrids.
How to observe the Perseids
There are many meteor showers throughout the year, but few are as prominent as the Perseids. They are active from the 17th July to the 24th August, but are best observed when they reach their peak on the 12th August. This is when you’ll be able to see the biggest number of meteors per hour. The place where meteors appear to originate in the sky is called the radiant. For the Perseids, the radiant is located in the constellation of Perseus, but you can still see meteors all across the sky. Perseus will be in the sky all night, so you’ll be able to observe meteors anytime, so long as it’s dark!
Here’s a few things to remember when observing meteors:
- Find a spot away from light pollution, or turn off as many lights in the immediate vicinity as you can.
- Keep yourself warm – observing meteors can take a while, and British nights are cold!
- Lie down on the ground or use a reclining garden chair so you don’t hurt your neck.
- Be patient! You may have to wait quite some time to see a meteor.
With such a large number of meteors visible, you should have no trouble observing this fantastic display!
Sources: In the Sky