Meteor Alert: The Perseids Are Coming!

Pakalert August 12, 2011 1

The Perseid meteor shower will peak this weekend, but will the moon conspire against the fainter “shooting stars”?


  • The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most dazzling astronomical events of the year.
  • The meteors originate from the dusty debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle.
  • Sadly, the bright full moon may obscure the fainter meteors from view.
A Perseid streaks over a Bedouin tent near Amman.

A Perseid streaks over a Bedouin tent near Amman. Click to enlarge this image. 

At a distance of around 8 billion kilometers (5 billion miles, or 54 AU — a little beyond Pluto’s orbit), an icy space rock silently hurtles toward the inner solar system steadily gaining speed.

This piece of space debris — composed of primordial rock and ice — measures no more than 26 kilometers (16 miles) in diameter, and as it plunges sunward, it will pass the orbits of Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and even power through our neighborhood before being flung back into the depths of interplanetary space.

You’d think that’s all we would see of Comet Swift-Tuttle until it returns in about 133 years time, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

Every year we are reminded of its fleeting presence as the Earth intercepts the comet’s orbit and sweeps up some of the fragments it left behind. Like a celestial vacuum cleaner, Earth collects everything in its path and treats us to one of the greatest shows the Universe has to offer: the Perseid meteor shower.

SEE ALSO: Sharing the Perseids with #Meteorwatch

Through the year, there are around 30 decent meteor showers and the Perseids are some of the finest meteor examples around mid-August every year.

As the countless pieces of dust slam into our atmosphere at over 100,000 kilometers per hour (17 miles per second!), they compress the air to such a degree that the gas heats up, generating light. We see this as the characteristic shooting star effect. The smaller pieces of dust will burn up high in the atmosphere and we call them “meteors.” (Larger pieces of debris that survive the fiery plunge and hit the ground are called “meteorites” — but these are rare and it is highly unlikely any Perseid will fall into this category.)

It’s possible to see meteors any time of year, we call them “sporadic” and they are not associated with any shower. If you study the meteors from a particular shower though, you will see that they all come from one point in the sky. This point is known as the “radiant” and it’s the location of the radiant that determines the name of the shower. In the case of the Perseids, the radiant lies in the constellation Perseus.


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One Comment »

  1. Lucky Saint Luis August 12, 2011 at 11:08 pm - Reply

    EVERY YEAR in August we got intensive meteor showers since milenium times but today we got a lot of people not knowing nothing and making surprise stories up. Go to school and to the libraries again for the sake of god.

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