Get Ready for the 2016 Perseids

perseid meteor
A brilliant early Perseid meteor from the night of August 8th over Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. Image credit and copyright: Frankie Lucena.

Out camping under the August sky? The coming week gives us a good reason to stay up late, as the Perseid meteor shower graces the summer sky. An ‘old faithful’ of annual meteor showers, the Perseids are always sure to produce.

The 2016 Perseids present a few challenges, though persistent observers should still see a descent show. The Perseids are typically active from July 17th to August 24th, with the peak arriving this year right around 13:00 to 15:30 Universal Time on Friday, August 12th. This will place the radiant for the Perseids high in the sky after local midnight for observers in the northern Pacific, though observers worldwide should be vigilant over the next week. Meteor showers don’t read predictions and prognostications, and an arrival of the peak just a few hours early would place North America in the cross-hairs this coming Friday. The Perseids typically produce an average Zenithal Hourly Rate of 60-200 per hour, and the International Meteor Organization predicts a ZHR of 150 for 2016.

Looking to the northeast from latitude 50 degrees north at 1AM local on the morning of August 12th. Image credit: Stellarium.
Looking to the northeast from latitude 50 degrees north at 1AM local on the morning of August 12th. Image credit: Stellarium.

The nemesis of the 2016 is the Moon, which reaches Full on August 18th, six days after the shower’s peak. The time to start watching this shower is now, before the waxing Moon becomes a factor. The farther north you are, the earlier the Moon sets this week:

Moonset on the evening of August 11/12th:

Latitude versus Moonset ( in local daylight saving time)

20 degrees north – 1:30 AM

30 degrees north – 1:14 AM

40 degrees north – 0:56 AM

50 degrees north – 0:30 AM

Early morning is almost always the best time to watch any meteor shower, as the Earth-bound observer faces in to the meteor stream head on. The December Geminids only recently surpassed the Perseids in annual intensity in the past few years.

The orientation of the Earth's shadow versus, the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Perseids at the start of the projected peak on August 12th. Image credit: Orbitron.
The orientation of the Earth’s shadow versus the Sun, Moon and the radiant of the Perseids at the start of the projected peak on August 12th. Image credit: Orbitron.

The radiant of the Perseids drifts through the constellations of Cassiopeia, Perseus and Camelopardalis from late July to mid-August. The Perseids could just as easily have received the tongue-twisting moniker of the ‘Cassiopeiaids’ or the ‘August Camelopardalids.’ The source of the Perseids is comet Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle discovered by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle in 1862. Comet Swift-Tuttle reached perihelion on 1992, and visits the inner solar system once again in 2126.

The Perseids are also sometimes referred as the “Tears of Saint Lawrence” who was martyred on a hot grid iron on August 10th, 258 AD.

The Perseids have been especially active in recent decades, following the perihelion passage of Comet Swift-Tuttle.  Meteor showers come and go. For example, the Andromedids were a shower of epic storm proportions until the late 19th century. We have records of the Perseids back to 36AD, but on some (hopefully) far off date, the debris path of Comet Swift-Tuttle will fail to intersect the Earth’s orbit annually, and the Perseids will become a distant memory. During previous years, the Perseids exhibited a peak of ZHR= 95 (2015), 68 (2014), 110 (2013), 121 (2012) and 58 (2011). Keep in mind, the Perseids have also sometimes displayed a twin peak during previous years, as well.

An early snapshot of the activity for the 2016 Perseids. image credit: The International Meteor Organization.
An early snapshot of the activity for the 2016 Perseids. Image credit: The International Meteor Organization.

Observing the Perseids

The best instrument to observe the Perseids with is a pair of old fashioned, ‘Mk-1 eyeballs.’ Simply lay back, warm drink in hand, and watch. Remember, the quoted ZHR is an ideal rate that we all strive for, though there are strategies to maximize your chances of catching a meteor. Watching early in the morning when the radiant rides highest (around sunrise in the case of the Perseids), seeking out dark skies, and enlisting a friend to watch in an opposite direction can raise your hourly meteor count.

perseid meteor
An early Perseid captured by Chris-Lyons. Image credit and copyright: Chris Lyons.

Keep a pair of binoculars handy to examine any persistent glowing trains and lingering smoke trails from bright fireballs. Monitoring the FM band for the pings of accompanying radio meteors can add another dimension to an observation session. The ionized trail of a meteor can very occasionally reflect the signal of a distant radio station, bringing it through clear for a few seconds before fading out.

Also, keep an ear out for an even stranger phenomenon, as bright meteors are sometimes accompanied by a hissing or crackling sound. Long thought to be a psychological phenomenon, a team of Japanese astronomers managed to catch recordings of this strange effect during the 1988 Perseid meteors.

Imaging meteors is also pretty straight forward. Simply tripod mount a DSLR with a wide field lens, take some test exposures of the sky to get the ISO, f-stop and exposure combination just right, and begin taking exposures 30 seconds to five minutes long. An intervalometer can automate the process, freeing you up to kick back and watch the show.

Got science? Be sure to send those meteor counts into the International Meteor Organization (IMO) and watch their live updated graph as the shower progresses.

Also, be sure to tweet those meteor sightings to #Meteorwatch.

Kick Back, Look Up, We’re In For a GREAT Perseid Meteor Shower

Multi-photo composite showing Perseid meteors shooting from their radiant point in the constellation Perseus. Earth crosses the orbit of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle every year in mid-August. Debris left behind by the comet burns up as meteors when it strikes our upper atmosphere at 130,000 mph. Credit: NASA

Every year in mid-August, Earth plows headlong into the debris left behind by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Slamming into our atmosphere at 130,000 mph, the crumbles flash to light as the Perseid meteor shower. One of the world’s most beloved cosmic spectacles, this year’s show promises to be a real crowd pleaser.

The author tries his best to enjoys this year's moon-drenched Perseids from the "astro recliner". Credit: Bob King
The author takes in last year’s moon-drenched Perseids from a recliner. Credit: Bob King

Not only will the Moon be absent, but the shower maximum happens around 3 a.m. CDT (8 UT) August 13 — early morning hours across North America when the Perseid radiant is highest. How many meteors will you see? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-100 meteors per hour. As always, the darker and less light polluted your observing site, the more zips and zaps you’ll see.

Find a place where there’s as few stray lights as possible, the better to allow your eyes to dark-adapt. Comfort is also key. Meteor showers are best enjoyed in a reclining position with as little neck craning as possible. Lie back on a folding lawn chair with your favorite pillow and bring a blanket to stay warm. August nights can bring chill and dew; a light coat and hat will make your that much more comfortable especially if you’re out for an hour or more.

The Perseids appear to radiate from spot below the W of Cassiopeia in the constellation Perseus, hence the name "Perseids". Source: Stellarium
The Perseids appear to radiate from spot below the W of Cassiopeia in the constellation Perseus, hence the shower’s name. This map shows the sky facing northeast around 12:30 a.m. local time August 13. Source: Stellarium

I’m always asked what’s the best direction to face. Shower meteors will show up in every corner of the sky, but can all be traced backwards to a point in Perseus called the radiant. That’s the direction from which they all appear to stream out of like bats flying out of a cave.

Another way to picture the radiant it is to imagine driving through a snowstorm at night. As you accelerate, you’ll notice that the flakes appear to radiate from a point directly in front of you, while the snow off to the sides streams away in long trails. If you’re driving at a moderate rate of speed, the snow flies past on nearly parallel paths that appear to focus in the distance the same way parallel railroad tracks converge.

At some personal peril, I grabbed a photo of snow in the headlights while driving home in a recent storm. Meteors in a meteor shower appear to radiate from a point in the distance in identical fashion. Photo: Bob King
Meteors in a meteor shower appear to radiate from a point in the distance in identical fashion to driving a car in a snowstorm. The motion of the car (Earth) creates the illusion of  meteors radiating from a point in the sky ahead of the observer. Credit: Bob King

Now replace your car with the moving Earth and comet debris for snow and you’ve got a radiant and a meteor shower. With two caveats. We’re traveling at 18 1/2 miles per second and our “windshield”, the atmosphere, is more porous. Snow bounces off a car windshield, but when a bit of cosmic debris strikes the atmosphere, it vaporizes in a flash. We often think friction causes the glow of meteors, but they’re heated more by ram pressure.

A bright fireball breaking to pieces near Yellow Springs, Ohio. Meteors are really tubes of ionized air energized by the passage of comet bits. Credit: John Chumack
A bright fireball breaking to pieces near Yellow Springs, Ohio. Meteors are really tubes of ionized air energized by the passage of comet bits. Credit: John Chumack

The incoming bit of ice or rock rapidly compresses and heats the air in front of it, which causes the particle to vaporize around 3,000°F (1,650°C). The meteor or bright streak we see is really a hollow “tube” of glowing or ionized air molecules created by the tiny rock as its energy of motion is transferred to the surrounding air molecules. Just as quickly, the molecules return to their rest state and release that energy as a spear of light we call a meteor.

Imagine. All it takes is something the size of a grain of sand to make us look up and yell “Wow!”

Speaking of size, most meteor shower particles range in size from a small pebble to beach sand and generally weigh less than 1-2 grams or about what a paperclip weighs. Larger chunks light up as fireballs that shine as bright as Venus or better. Because of their swiftness, Perseids are generally white and often leave chalk-like trails called trains in their wakes.

Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle captured during its last pass by Earth on Nov. 1, 1992. A filament of dust deposited by the comet in 1862 may cause a temporary spike in activity on Aug. 12 around 18:39 UT. Credit: Gerald Rhemann
Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle seen during its last pass by Earth on Nov. 1, 1992. A filament of dust deposited by the comet in 1862 may cause a temporary spike in activity around 18:39 UT on August 12. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

This year’s shower is special in another way. According to Sky and Telescope magazine, meteor stream modeler Jeremie Vaubaillon predicts a bump in the number of Perseids around 1:39 p.m. (18:39 UT) as Earth encounters a debris trail shed by the Comet Swift-Tuttle back in 1862. The time favors observers in Asia where the sky will be dark. It should be interesting to see if the prediction holds.

How To Watch

Already the shower’s active. Go out any night through about the 15th and you’ll see at least at least a handful of Perseids an hour. At nightfall on the peak night of August 12-13, you may see only 20-30 meteors an hour because the radiant is still low in the sky. But these early hours give us the opportunity to catch an earthgrazer — a long, very slow-moving meteor that skims the atmosphere at a shallow angle, crossing half the sky or more before finally fading out.

I’ve only seen one good earthgrazer in my earthly tenure, but I’ll never forget the sight. Ambling from low in the northeastern sky all the way past the southern meridian, it remained visible long enough to catch it in my telescope AND set up a camera and capture at least part of its trail!

A Perseid meteor streaks across the northeastern sky two Augusts ago. This year's shower will peak on the night of August 12-13 with up to 100 meteors per hour visible from a dark sky. Credit: Bob King
A Perseid meteor streaks across the northeastern sky two Augusts ago. Give the shower an hour’s worth of your time – you won’t be disappointed. Credit: Bob King

The later you stay up, the higher the radiant rises and the more meteors  you’ll see. Peak activity of 50-100 meteors per hour will occur between about 2-4 a.m. No need to stare at the radiant to see meteors. You can look directly up at the darkest part of the sky or face east or southeast and look halfway up if you like. You’re going to see meteors everywhere. Some will arrive as singles, others in short burst of 2, 3, 4 or more. I like to face southeast with the radiant off to one side. That way I can see a mix of short-trailed meteors from near the radiant and longer, graceful streaks further away just like the snow photo shows.

If there’s a lull in activity, don’t think it’s over. Meteor showers have strange rhythms of their own. Five minutes of nothing can be followed by multiple hits or even a fireball. Get into the feel of the shower as you sense spaceship Earth speeding through the comet’s dusty orbit. Embrace the chill of the August night under the starry vacuum.

Fear Not the Moon, Perseids Always a Great Show

The annual Perseid meteor shower radiates from a point in the constellation Perseus just below the W of Cassiopeia. Rates are usually about 100-120 meteors per hour from a dark, moonless sky at peak but will be cut in half due to moonlight this time around. This map shows the sky facing east around midnight Aug. 12-13. Source: Stellarium

Get ready for the darling of meteor showers this week — the Perseids. Who can deny their appeal? Not only is the shower rich with fiery flashes of meteoric light, but the meteors come in August when the weather’s couldn’t be more ideal. Peak activity is expected Tuesday night, Aug. 12-13, when up to 100 meteors an hour might be seen. 

Ah, but there’s a rub. This year the moon will be only two days past full and radiant enough to drown out the fainter shower members. We’re more likely to see something like 30 meteors an hour, maybe fewer. But all it takes is one bright meteoric flash to make it all worthwhile. Nothing gets the heart pumping like a bright Perseid and the anticipation of the next. 

While more meteors are surely more exciting, it’s not a number thing, but the experience of the raw event that makes all the difference.  Sure beats sitting in front of a computer screen or watching the latest rerun of The Big Bang Theory, right?

A fine Perseid flashes straight out of the radiant on August 12, 2013. The fuzzy-starry clump near the start of the trail is the Double Cluster. Credit: Bob King
A fine Perseid flashes straight out of the radiant on August 12 last year. The two bright dots above the start of the trail form the well-known Perseus Double Cluster. Credit: Bob King

Find a place away from glaring lights to allow your eyes to adapt to the darkness. That way you’ll see more meteors. While the Perseids spit out the occasional fireball, most shower members are going to be closer in brightness to the stars of the Big Dipper. Some leave “smoke” trails called meteor trains. They’re actually tubes of glowing air molecules created as the meteoroid particles speed through the atmosphere at 130,000 mph. Though ‘shooting stars’ can look surprisingly close by, they typically burn up 60-70 miles overhead.

Perseid meteors radiate from the constellation Perseus (hence the name) located a short distance below the “W” of Cassiopeia in the northeastern sky. To know for sure if you’ve seen the genuine item and not a random meteor, follow the trail backward — if it points toward the northeast, you’ve got a ringer! 

Perseid meteor ISS Ron Garan Aug13_2011
A remarkable orbital view of a Perseid (right, center) burning up in Earth’s atmosphere photographed by astronaut Ron Garan on Aug. 13, 2011. The star Arcturus is directly above the bright trail. Credit: Ron Garan / ISS Expedition 28 crew / NASA

You can watch for Perseids all week long, but peak activity begins Tuesday evening and continues through dawn Wednesday. The later you stay up, the more meteors you’ll spot because the radiant or point in the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate rises higher with every hour. The higher the radiant, the fewer meteors that get cut off by the horizon. 

Composite of bright Perseid meteors recorded by NASA all-sky cameras in 2011. Each is a grain of rock shed from the tail of comet 109P/ Swift-Tuttle. Every year in mid-August, Earth passes through the comet’s debris trail as it orbits around the sun. Any particles we smack into burn up as meteors about 60-70 miles overhead. Credit: NASA
Composite of bright Perseid meteors recorded by NASA all-sky cameras in 2011. Each is a grain of rock shed from the tail of comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Every year in mid-August, Earth passes through the comet’s debris trail as it orbits around the sun. Credit: NASA

The observing equipment you were born with and a comfortable chair are all you need to make the most of the event. OK, it’s nice to have a friend along, too, to share the ‘wow’ moments and keep from falling asleep. Sometimes I’m too lazy to haul out a chair and instead sprawl out on the deck or grass. Others prefer their Perseids from a steaming hot tub.

A 2010 Perseid meteor streaks over the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT). Credit: ESO
A 2010 Perseid meteor streaks over the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Credit: ESO

Left-behind sand, seed and pebble-sized particles from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle are responsible for all the fun. Discovered in 1862, the comet circles the sun every 120 years. Over millennia, 109P has left a stream of debris along its orbit, which the Earth passes through every year in mid-August. Comet grit hits our atmosphere like bugs smacking a car windshield and vaporize in a flashes of light or meteors.

Normally I’d recommend facing east or southeast to watch the shower, but with the moon dominating that direction, look off to the northeast, north or southwest to keep from getting zapped by that old devil moonlight. Even a little dark adaption will help boost your Perseid count. Once  situated, sit back, look up and enjoy each and every sparkler that drops from the sky.

And don’t forget to take in the big picture show rolling by. The sky’s a giant calendar that begins with the mid-summer constellations at nightfall and advances through the fall stars to the onset of winter with the rising of Orion at dawn. Let the months fall away as the Earth turns you toward the sun.  

May Meteor Storm Alert: All Eyes on the Sky!

Composite photo of Lyrid meteor shower and non-Lyrids taken with a NASA All-sky camera April 21-23, 2012. Credit: NASA/MSFC/Danielle Moser

On Friday night/early Saturday May 23-24 skywatchers across the U.S. and southern Canada may witness the birth of a brand new meteor shower.  If predictions hold true, Earth will pass through multiple tendrils of dust and pebbly bits left behind by comet 209P/LINEAR, firing up a celestial display on par with the strongest showers of the year. Or better.

Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, who predicted a possible meteor storm associated with comet 209P/LINEAR. Credit: NASA
Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute, who predicted a possible meteor storm associated with comet 209P/LINEAR. Credit: NASA

Earlier predictions called for a zenithal hourly rate or ZHR of 1,000 per hour, pushing this shower into the ‘storm’ category. ZHR is an idealized number based on the shower radiant located at the zenith under ideal skies. The actual number is lower depending on how far the radiant is removed from the zenith and how much light pollution or moonlight is present. Meteor expert Peter Jenniskens of the SETI Institute and Finland’s Esko Lyytinen first saw the possibility of a comet-spawned meteor storm and presented their results in Jenniskens’ 2006 book Meteor Showers and Their Parent Comets.

Approximate location of the radiant of the 209P/LINEAR shower at the peak of the brief maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Between 100-400 meteors may radiate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis near the North Star. This map shows the sky from Des Moines, Iowa. Created with Stellarium
Approximate location of the radiant (blue) of the 209P/LINEAR shower at the peak of the brief maximum around 2 a.m. CDT May 24. Between 100-400 meteors may radiate from the dim constellation of Camelopardalis near the North Star. This map shows the sky from the central U.S. Created with Stellarium

Quanzhi Ye and Paul Wiegert  (University of Western Ontario) predict a weaker shower because of a decline in the comet’s dust production rate based on observations made during its last return in 2009. They estimate a rate of ~200 per hour.

On the bright side, their simulations show that the comet sheds larger particles than usual, which could mean a shower rich in fireballs. Other researchers predict rates between 200 and 40o per hour. At the very least, the Camelopardalids – the constellation from which the meteors will appear to originate – promise to rival the Perseids and Geminids, the year’s richest showers. Motivation for setting the alarm clock if there ever was.

Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude 17. Material shed by the comet during passes between 1898-1919 may spawn a rich meteor shower overnight May 23-24. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini
Comet 209P/LINEAR on April 14, 2014. It’s currently very faint at around magnitude +17. Material shed by the comet during passes from 1898-1919 is expected to contribute to a May 23-24 shower. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Nick Howes, Martino Nicolini

Comet 209P/LINEARdiscovered in Feb. 2004 by the automated Lincoln Laboratory Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey, orbits the sun every 5.04 years with an aphelion (most distant point from the sun) near Jupiter. In 2012, during a relatively close pass of that planet, Jupiter perturbed its orbit, bringing it to within 280,000 miles (450,000 km) of Earth’s orbit.

That set up a remarkably close encounter with our planet on May 29 when 209P will cruise just 5 million miles (8 million km) from Earth to become the  9th closest comet ever observed. Multiple debris trails shed by the comet as long ago as the 18th century will intersect our planet’s path 5 days earlier, providing the material for the upcoming meteor shower/storm.

Shining meekly around magnitude +17 at the moment, 209P/LINEAR could brighten to magnitude +11 as it speeds from the Big Dipper south to Hydra during the latter half of May. Closer to the BIG night, we’ll provide helpful maps for you to track it down in your telescope. Cool to think that both the shower and its parent comet will be on display at the same time.

The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2:10 a.m. CDT. Credit: Mikhail Maslov
The shaded area shows where the shower will be visible on May 23-24. North of the red line, the moon (a thick crescent) will be up during shower maximum around 2:10 a.m. CDT. Credit: Mikhail Maslov

The shower’s expected to last only a few hours from about 12:40-3:50 a.m. CDT with the best viewing locations in the U.S. and southern half of Canada. This is where the radiant will be up in a dark sky at peak activity. A thick crescent moon rises around 3-3:30 a.m. but shouldn’t pose a glare problem.

Meteors from 209P/LINEAR are expected to be bright and slow with speeds around 40,000 mph compared to an average of 130,000 mph for the Perseids. Most shower meteoroids are minute specks of rock, but the Camelopardalids contain a significant number of particles larger than 1mm – big enough to spark  fireballs.

The dark streak is a series of filaments of dust and grit left behind by 209P/LINEAR mostly between 1803 and 1924 that Earth (shown on path) will pass through on May 23-24, 2014. Credit:
The dark “finger” represents streams of dust and rocks left behind by 209P/LINEAR during passes made from 1803 to 1924. Earth is shown intersecting the debris on May 23-24, 2014. Credit: Dr. Jeremie Vaubaillon

The farther north you live in the shaded area on the map, the higher the radiant stands in the northern sky and the more meteors you’re likely to see. Skywatchers living in the Deep South will see fewer shooting stars, but a greater proportion will be earthgrazers, those special meteors that skim the upper atmosphere and flare for an unusually long time before fading out.

To see the shower at its best, find a dark place with an open view to the north. Plan your viewing between 12:30 and 4 a.m. CDT (May 24), keeping the 2 a.m. forecast peak in mind. Maximum activity occurs around 3 a.m. Eastern, 1 a.m. Mountain and midnight Pacific  time.

No one’s really certain how many meteors will show, but I encourage you to make the effort to see what could be a spectacular show.

The 2013 Perseid Meteor Shower: An Observer’s Guide

The radiant for the Persieds, looking to the NE from latitide ~30N at around 2AM local. Created by the Author in Starry Night).

Get set for the meteoritic grand finale of summer.

Northern hemisphere summer that is. As we head into August, our gaze turns towards that “Old Faithful” of meteor showers, the Perseids. Though summer is mostly behind us now, “meteor shower season” is about to get underway in earnest.

Pronounced “Pur-SEE-ids,” this shower falls around the second week of August, just before school goes back in for most folks. This time of year also finds many the residents of the northern hemisphere out camping and away from light-polluted suburban skies.

This year also offers a special treat, as the Moon will be safely out of the sky during key observation times. The Moon reaches New phase on August 6th at 5:51 PM EDT/ 9:51 Universal Time (UT) and will be a 32% illuminated waxing crescent around the anticipated peak for the Perseid meteors on August 12th. And speaking of which, the Perseids are infamous for presenting a double-fisted twin peak in activity. This year, the first climax for the shower is predicted for around 13:00 UT on August 12th, favoring Hawaii and the North American west coast, and the second peak is set to arrive 13 hours later at 02:00 UT, favoring Europe & Africa.

Nodal crossing for the Perseid stream and Earth’s orbit sits right around 18:00 to 21:00 UT on August 12th for 2013. The shower derives its name from the constellation Perseus, and has a radiant located near Gamma Persei at right ascension 3 hours 4 minutes and a declination of +58 degrees. Atmospheric velocities for the Perseids are on the high end as meteor showers go, at 59km/sec.

Of course, like with any meteor shower, it’s worth starting to watch a few days prior to the peak date. Although meteor streams like the Perseids have been modeled and mapped over the years, there are still lots of surprises out there. Plus, starting an early vigil is insurance that you at least catch some action in the event that you’re clouded out on game day! Like we mentioned in last week’s post on the Delta Aquarids, the Perseids are already active, spanning a season from July 17th to August 24th.

The Zenithal Hourly Rate for the Perseids is generally between 60-100 meteors. The ZHR is the number of meteors you could expect to see during optimal conditions under dark skies with the radiant directly overhead. Rates were enhanced back in the 1990’s, and 2004 saw a ZHR of 200.

The orbit of comet Swift-Tuttle and its intersection near the Earth's orbit. (Created the author using NASA/JPL ephmeris generator).
The orbit of comet Swift-Tuttle and its intersection near the Earth’s orbit. (Created by the author using NASA/JPL ephemerides generator).

The source of the Perseids is comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Discovered on July 16th-19th, 1862 by astronomers Lewis Swift & Horace Tuttle, Swift-Tuttle is on a 133.3 year orbit and last passed through the inner solar system in late 1992. This comet will once again grace our skies in early 2126 AD.

The Perseids are also sometimes referred to as the “tears of St Lawrence,” after the Catholic saint who was martyred on August 10th, 258 AD. The Perseids have been noted by Chinese astronomers as far back as 36 AD, when it was recorded that “more than 100 meteors flew thither in the morning.” The annual nature of the shower was first described by Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quételet in 1835.

Enhanced rates for the Perseids marked the return of comet Swift-Tuttle in the 1990s. Recent years have seen rates as reported by the International Meteor Organization at a ZHR=175(2009), 91(2010), 58(2011), & a resurgence of a ZHR=122 last year.

Just what will 2013 bring? There’s one truism in meteor observing—you definitely won’t see anything if you do not get out and observe. Meteor shower observing requires no equipment, just clear skies and patience. Watch in the early hours before dawn, when the rates are highest. Meteors can occasionally be seen before midnight, but are marked by lower rates and slow, stately trains across the sky. Some suggest that best viewing is at a 45 degree angle away from the radiant, but we maintain that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. Pair up with a friend or two and watch in opposite directions to increase your meteor-spotting chances.

We also like to keep a set of binoculars handy to examine those smoke trains left by bright fireballs that may persist seconds after streaking across the sky.

And speaking of which, there has also been some spirited discussion over the past week as to whether or not the Perseids produce more fireballs than any other shower. I certainly remember seeing several memorable fireballs from this shower over the years, although the Geminids, Leonids and Taurids can be just spectacular on active years. The stated r value of the Perseids is one of the lowest at 2.2, suggesting a statistically high percentage of fireballs.

And in the realm of the strange and the curious, here are just a few phenomena to watch/listen for on your Perseid vigil;

–      Can you “hear” meteors? Science says that sounds shouldn’t carry through the tenuous atmosphere above 50 kilometres up, and yet reports of audible meteors as a hiss or crackle persist. Is this an eye-brain illusion? Researchers in 1988 actually studied this phenomenon, which is also sometimes reported during displays of aurora. If there’s anything to it, the culprit may be the localized generation of localized electrophonic noises generated by Extra/Very Low Frequency electromagnetic radiation.

–      Can meteor streaks appear colored? Green is often the top reported hue.

–      Can meteors appear to “corkscrew” during their trajectory, or is this an illusion?

A Perseid very near the shower radiant during the 2012 shower. (Photo by author).
A Perseid very near the shower radiant during the 2012 shower. (Photo by author).

Wide-field photography is definitely a viable option during meteor showers. Just remember to bring extra charged batteries, as long exposure times will drain modern DSLRs in a hurry!

And did you know: you can even “listen” to meteor pings on an FM radio or portable TV? This is a great “rain check” option!

And there’s still real science to be done in the world of meteor shower studies. The International Meteor Organization welcomes counts from volunteers… and be sure to Tweet those Perseid sightings to #Meteorwatch.

Also be sure to check out the UK Meteor Observation Network, which has just launched their live site with streaming images of meteors as they are recorded.

Good luck, clear skies, and let the late 2013 meteor shower season begin!

-And be sure to post those Perseid pics to the Flickr forum on Universe Today… we’ll be doing photo essay roundups from observers around the world!

Watch for the Delta Aquarid Meteors This Weekend

The Southern Delta Aquarid radiant, looking southeast at 2AM local from latitude 30 degrees north on the morning of July 30th. (Created by the author in Starry Night).

The meteor shower drought ends this weekend.

The northern summer hemisphere meteor season is almost upon us. In a few weeks’ time, the Perseids — the “Old Faithful” of meteor showers — will be gracing night skies worldwide.

But the Perseids have an “opening act”- a meteor shower optimized for southern hemisphere skies known as the Delta Aquarids.

This year offers a mixed bag for this shower. The Delta Aquarids are expected to peak on July 30th and we should start seeing some action from this shower starting this weekend.

The Moon, however, also reaches Last Quarter phase the day before the expected peak of the Delta Aquarids this year on July 29th at 1:43PM EDT/17:43 Universal Time (UT). This will diminish the visibility of all but the brightest meteors in the early morning hours of July 30th.

A cluster of meteor shower radiants also lies nearby. The Eta Aquarids emanate from a point near the asterism known as the “Water Jar” in the constellation Aquarius around May 5th. Another nearby but weaker shower known as the Alpha Capricornids are also currently active, with a zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) approaching the average hourly sporadic rate of 5. And speaking of which, the antihelion point, another source of sporadic meteors, is nearby in late July as well in eastern Capricornus.

The Delta Aquarids are caused by remnants of Comet 96P/Machholz colliding with Earth’s atmosphere. The short period comet was only discovered in 1986 by amateur astronomer Donald Machholz. Prior to this, the source of the Delta Aquarids was a mystery.

The Delta Aquarids have a moderate atmospheric entry velocity (for a meteor shower, that is) around an average of 41 kilometres a second. They also have one of the lowest r values of a major shower at 3.2, meaning that they produce a disproportionately higher number of fainter meteors, although occasional brighter fireballs are also associated with this shower.

Image of an early confirmed Delta Aquarid captured by the UK Fireball Network (@ on Twitter) captured by their Ash Vale North camera.
Image of an early confirmed Delta Aquarid by the UK Meteor Network (@UKMeteorNetwork on Twitter) captured by their Ash Vale North camera on July 17th, 2013. (Credit: Richard Kacerek & United Kingdom Meteor Observation Network, used with permission).

The Delta Aquarids are also one the very few showers with a southern hemisphere radiant. It’s somewhat of a mystery as to why meteor showers seem to favor the northern hemisphere. Of the 18 major annual meteor showers, only four occur below the ecliptic plane and three (the Alpha Capricornids, and the Eta and Delta Aquarids) approach the Earth from south of the equator. A statistical fluke, or just the product of the current epoch?

In fact, the Delta Aquarids have the most southern radiant of any major shower, with a radiant located just north of the bright star Fomalhaut in the constellation Piscis Austrinus near Right Ascension 339 degrees and Declination -17 degrees.  Researchers have even broken this shower down into two distinct northern and southern radiants, although it’s the southern radiant that is the more active during the July season.

Together, this loose grouping of meteor shower radiants in the vicinity is known as the Aquarid-Capricornid complex.  The Delta Aquarids are active from July 14th to August 18th, and unlike most showers, have a very broad peak. This is why you’ll see sites often quote the maximum for the shower at anywhere from July 28th to the 31st. In fact, you may just catch a stray Delta Aquarid while on vigil for the Perseids in a few weeks!

The shower was first identified by astronomer G.L. Tupman, who plotted 65 meteors associated with the stream in 1870. Observations of the Delta Aquarids were an off-and-on affair throughout the early 20th century, with many charts erroneously listing them as the “Beta Piscids”. The separate northern and southern radiants weren’t even untangled until 1950. The advent of radio astronomy made more refined observations of the Delta Aquarids possible. In 1949, Canadian astronomer D.W.R. McKinley based out of Ottawa, Canada identified both streams and pinned down the 41 km per second velocity that’s still quoted for the shower today.

Further radio studies of the shower were carried out at Jodrell Bank in the early 1950’s, and the shower gave strong returns in the early 1970’s for southern hemisphere observers even with the Moon above the horizon, with ZHRs approaching 40. The best return for the Southern Delta Aquarids in recent times is listed by the International Meteor Organization as a ZHR of about 40 on the morning of July 28th, 2009.

A study of the Delta Aquarids in 1963 by Fred Whipple and S.E. Hamid reveal striking similarities between the Delta Aquarids and the January Quadrantids & daytime Arietid stream active in June. They note that the orbital parameters of the streams were similar about 1,400 years ago, and the paths are thought to have diverged due to perturbations from the planet Jupiter.

Observing the Delta Aquarids can serve as a great “dry run” for the Perseids in a few weeks. You don’t need any specialized gear, simply find a dark site, block the Moon behind a building or hill, and watch.

Photographing meteors is similar to doing long exposures of star trails. Simply aim your tripod mounted DSLR camera at a section of sky and take a series of time exposures about 1-3 minutes long to reveal meteor streaks. Images of Delta Aquarids seem elusive, almost to the point of being mythical. An internet search turns up more blurry pictures of guys in ape suits purporting to be Bigfoot than Delta Aquarid images… perhaps we can document the “legendary Delta Aquarids” this year?

– Read more of the fascinating history of the Delta Aquarids here.

– Seen a meteor? Be sure to tweet it to #Meteorwatch.

– The IMO wants your meteor counts and observations!


Astrophotos: The 2012 Perseid Meteor Shower from Around the World

Caption: Perseid Meteors with Lunar & Planetary Conjunction on August 12, 2012. Credit: John Chumack.

Here’s some great views of the Perseid Meteor Shower from Universe Today readers around the world. Over the weekend was the peak of the annual meteor shower that never seems to disappoint! We start with one of our “regulars,” John Chumack from his observatory in Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA. But there were also many other objects in John’s field of view, including the waning crescent Moon, Venus, and Orion rising over the observatory dome, the Pleaides, Hyades, and Jupiter, too. John used a odified Canon Rebel Xsi & 17mm lens at F4, ISO 400, and a 20 second exposure. See more of John’s wonderful astrophotos at his Flickr page or at his website, Galactic Images.

More beautiful shots below:

Caption: The Perseids on August 13, 2012. Credit: M. Rasid Tugral from Ankara, Turkey

M. Rasid Tugral from Ankara, Turkey sent in this great image from August 13. Tugral is an accomplished astrophotographer and teaches at the Middle East Technical University in the Department of Physics.

By Patrick Cullis (pcully on Flickr) in Colorado, USA, taken on August 12, 2012 using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II.

Caption: Perseids on August 9, 2012. Credit: Nu Am (tazacanitu).

Another great shot from August 9, 2012 by Nu Am (tzacanitu on Flickr) “Out of the camera raw, re-dimensioned to 25% and saved as jpg. Canon 50D + Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II LD IF @17mm, tripod, ISO 400, 30seconds, f/4.”

Caption: 2012 Perseids on August 12, 2012. Credit: Kevin Jung.

A lovely capture of two Perseid meteors in one shot by Kevin Jung(Kevin’s Stuff on Flickr). “Two Perseid meteors show up in a 30 second image shot during the night of August 11/morning of August 12,” Kevin wrote from Lowell, Michigan, USA. He used a Canon EOS 40D. “Since there were some meteors in all parts of the sky, I just pointed my camera to the north with Perseus just to the right of the frame,” Kevin explained. “I used the intervelometer and took 30 second shots automatically. It was lucky that the skies cleared in time to see anything. We had clouds all day, and then weather system was slow to move out of the area. The started to break up around 10pm, but it was until after midnight when the skies cleared up (with the exception of a few areas).”

Thanks to everyone who shared their images!

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

How To Enjoy The 2011 Perseid Meteor Shower

Credit APOD/ Adrian West


It’s time for the Perseid Meteor Shower and you want to bag some meteors (shooting stars), but how? Maybe you just want to know where and what time to look, or perhaps you are having a Perseid party and you want everyone to have a great time.

If so, then please read on…

First, you don’t need a telescope or binoculars or any high tech equipment. You just need your own eyes and glasses if you wear them.

It’s a good idea to be away from bright lights and if possible have a red light torch or red flashlight, but most importantly try to get your eyes adapted to the dark.

Bright light will instantaneously ruin dark adaption so shining flashlights into faces is a big no-no and looking directly at the Moon isn’t going to help either. Position yourself so you don’t get the Moon in your view.

The Perseids don’t rain down out of the sky; they appear every few minutes and this year, you may only see the rarer bright ones and very bright fireballs due to the full Moon that will be up, and the glare it will unfortunately provide. But if you can get in a good position to avoid the glare, sit back and wait to see some meteors. This is totally worth the wait, but you need to be comfortable or you will give up, go indoors and not see any.

The best bet is to get a reclining garden chair or airbed or something similar to lay back and relax upon. Lots of people put those yard trampolines to very good use and use them as meteor observing platforms.

Dress warmly and cover yourself with blankets or a sleeping bag, August is a summer month, but it can get quite chilly at 1:00am and this will make you give up early too, so stay warm.

Have plenty of drinks and snacks ready so you can basically camp out and not have to keep on getting up, or doing things, because this is when you will, ironically, miss the best fireball of the evening.

Fireball Meteor
Perseid fireball. Image Credit: Pierre Martin of Arnprior, Ontario, Canada.

Where do I look and what direction?

This is the most common question I hear people ask about meteor showers and the answer is very simple.

Follow the above comfort guidelines, look up and away from the Moon and fill your gaze with the sky.

Perseid meteors originate from a fixed point in the sky called the radiant, which is in the constellation of Perseus, however meteors will appear in any part of the sky. You can trace their paths back to the radiant.

After midnight, look towards the East/Northeast part of the your sky to find Perseus. To find it look for the easily identifiable constellation Cassiopeia, the big “W” in sky! Perseus is just below Cassiopeia.

Credit: Stardate/McDonald Observatory

You can draw, take pictures and even video the Perseids, but the simplest and most enjoyable thing is to lay back, relax and be patient and you will be rewarded with a great a view.

The best times to look will be in the dark pre-dawn sky on August 11, 12 and 13, 2011.

You can also follow along with Universe Today and with #meteorwatch on twitter. Ask questions, see what others are seeing, share your experiences and images using the hashtag #meteorwatch

Most of all, enjoy your Perseid experience and have fun!

Credit: NasaImages