2009 Perseid Meteor Shower – Double Peaks This Year!

by Tammy Plotner on August 10, 2009

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2009 Perseid Meteor Shower Preview by John Chumack

2009 Perseid Meteor Shower Preview by John Chumack

Are you ready for this year’s Perseid Meteor Shower? What will be the best place to watch and when will be the best date to see the most “shooting stars”? Follow along and let’s find out…

The Perseid meteor shower has a wonderful and somewhat grisly history. Often referred to as the “Tears of St. Lawrence” this annual shower coincidentally occurs roughly about the same date as the saint’s death is commemorated on August 10. While scientifically we know the appearance of the shooting stars are the by-products of comet Swift-Tuttle, our somewhat more superstitious ancestors viewed them as the tears of a martyred man who was burned for his beliefs. Who couldn’t appreciate a fellow who had the candor to quip “I am already roasted on one side and, if thou wouldst have me well-cooked, it is time to turn me on the other.” while being burned alive? If nothing else but save for that very quote, I’ll tip a wave to St. Lawrence at the sight of a Perseid!

While the fall rate – the number of meteors seen per hour – of the Perseids has declined in recent years since Swift-Tuttle’s 1992 return, the time to begin your Perseid watch is now. The random rate has already increased sharply and there is no guaranteed that skies will be clear on the predicted peak time – traditionally August 12 at approximately 11:00 GMT. The tears of St. Lawrence are already beginning to fall! Let’s join John Chumack via his Northeast Sky Camera #2 in his backyard Observatory in Dayton, Ohio, USA, for a look. This 5 hour movie was compressed to 10 seconds for web viewing.

Says John, “The brightest one occurred when the radiant was low on the horizon around 1:27 a.m. This fireball was at around -8 magnitude or greater, even with all the strong moonlight, some of the meteors are very bright! This one had a double explosion too!”

Astronomers are now estimating a double peak this year for viewers in the eastern portion of North America on Wednesday morning the 12th of August 2009. One peak should occur around 1:00 a.m. EST and the other peak around 5:30 a.m. EST. However, let’s assume that not all of us can be in that place and be up at that time… So let’s take a more practical look at observing the Perseid Meteor Shower.

Perseid meteor activity begins about midnight no matter where you live, but they can happen earlier, too. Because we are also contending with a Moon which will interfere with fainter meteors, the earlier you can observe, the better. There is no harm in beginning Tuesday night before the Moon rises. The general direction to face will be east around midnight and the activity will move overhead as the night continues. While waiting for midnight or later for activity to pick up to begin isn’t a pleasant prospect, by then we are looking more nearly face-on into the direction of the Earth’s motion as it orbits the Sun, and the radiant – the constellation of the meteor shower origin – is showing well. However, it won’t be long until the Moon also begins to show very well, indeed! Put an obstruction such as the edge of a house or a tree between you and Selene… Even if you just open an umbrella, the very act of shielding some of the light will most certainly help you to see far more meteors than if you don’t. For those of you who prefer not to stay up late? Try getting up early instead!

How many can you expect to see? A very average and cautiously stated fall rate for this year’s Perseids would be about 30 per hour, but remember – this is a collective estimate. It doesn’t mean that you’ll see one every two minutes, but rather you may see four or five in quick succession with a long period of inactivity in between. You can make your observing sessions far more pleasant by planning for inactive times in advance. Bring a radio along, a thermos of your favorite beverage, and a comfortable place to observe from. The further you can get away from city lights, the better your chances will be. If you’re cloud out on the peak date, don’t stop watching – because activity continues on for several days!

Will this 2000 year-old meteor shower be a sparkling success or a total dud? You’ll never know unless you go out and try yourself. One thing we do know is the Perseids are one of the most predictable of all meteor showers and even an hour or so of watching should bring a happy reward! Wishing you clear skies and good luck…

About 

Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

wardniner August 10, 2009 at 12:12 PM

Another awesome article from Tammy – I can’t wait for Wednesday!

One teeny point, though: they didn’t actually “view them as the tears of a man martyred for his beliefs.” There was nothing “superstitious” about this sweet name they gave to the annual event.
It was just a symbolic way of remembering a saint’s feast day.
(For the record, neither did my grandma believe thunder was actually the angels bowling, and no sailor I know labors under the belief that illuminated plasma is actually a fire belonging to St. Elmo.)

Tammy Plotner August 10, 2009 at 1:05 PM

hehehee… i can’t even stretch the facts a wee bit without someone catching me!

;)

juliagray August 10, 2009 at 5:10 PM

Thanks Tammy, but it would be beneficial to make a note about where in the world is best/worst for viewing also. I made an effort to look it up and I’m glad I did. Here in Southern Australia it would be useless. It’s way below the horizon for us, and I’d have to stay up until 3am just for the “slight chance” of one appearing way north of the horizon. Bummer! :(

Tammy Plotner August 10, 2009 at 5:17 PM

hi, julia!

as a rule of thumb, you need to be able to see the constellation to see the meteor shower. and… unfortunately… you’re right about perseus being very low to the horizon for southern australia.

however, meteor showers are not common in the southern hemisphere – so why not take a chance? the lower the contellation is, the better your chances are of seeing an “earth grazer”! those are the ones that have an extremely long tail. i know it’s bitter cold there right now, but that also means you might stand a better chance of having clear skies than those of us who are currently socked in with high heat and humidity. (right now we’d just about trade your for a cool night!)

yes, the moon will also be quite poorly positioned for you as well – but just seeing one >>>> l o n g >>>> trail is worth being out there!

Jon Hanford August 10, 2009 at 8:25 PM

I like Tammy’s way of thinking! Get creative. Who knows what you might see :)

meseta August 11, 2009 at 1:34 AM

Being a total newbie to astronomy, my imagination was captured when I read in my local paper that the Perseids would be visible tonight !

Wow !

Which direction should I face to get the best chance to see them ? I am in the UAE, about 70 km north east of Dubai. I understand it would be best to drive into the desert to get away from any light contamination, but which direction and when ? Anu help would be appreciated. We are GMT +4 hours.
Thanks.
Meseta

Jon Hanford August 11, 2009 at 5:11 AM

@ meseta: you may find this NASA site helpful in your quest to observe the Perseids: http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/31jul_perseids2009.htm . Travel to any convenient location where the lights from Dubai are barely visible. I sure wish I was in the UAE to observe this shower. Good luck & clear skies!

wardniner August 11, 2009 at 6:30 AM

Tammy,

I knew my favorite writer here didn’t really think that…

:)

I wish I was back in Wyoming. I saw the ’99 (or was it ’00?) Leonids there. Most amazing night of my life.
Didn’t see Perseids 1 from my Chicago balcony last night, but tomorrow (a day late, a dollar short – story of my life) the Adler Planetarium is having a get-together in the sticks outside Chicago, so maybe I’ll see some then.

kehart August 11, 2009 at 11:21 PM

hey
i live in south australia wat would be the best day and time to watch the perseid meteor shower

regards kelly

asap

kehart August 11, 2009 at 11:22 PM

hey sorry bout the comment above i actually live in nsw australia

asap
Regards Kelly

meteorgeek August 12, 2009 at 2:00 AM

Watching this morning, here are some Perseid meteor shower videos: http://bit.ly/QPcnV

Tammy Plotner August 13, 2009 at 3:55 AM

if you’re tuning into this article late – DO NOT STOP WATCHING FOR THE PERSEID METEOR SHOWER!!

the perseid meteor shower doesn’t begin or end at a particular time. peak activity simply means that this is when the highest number recorded is averaged and given a specific date. the truth is, we do not know exactly how broad the meteoroid stream really is – how much jupiter’s gravity has affected it – or exactly when the earth may pass through a particularly concentrated area.

those are the facts, jack.

what we do know is around what date that the earth will begin to enter the stream and about what date the earth will exit it.

in this case, you’re going to see activity from the perseids until around the 25th of august!

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