WASHINGTON — The year’s best meteor shower, the Perseids, is happening now with the peak expected to occur Wednesday night into Thursday morning.
On Thursday at 4 a.m., because the moon out will be out of the sky, an observer with a good location — one that’s dark and unobscured — could see 60 to 100 meteors an hour.
Each year at this time, our planet encounters a debris stream of cometary dust made by Comet Swift-Tuttle. As Earth moves in its orbit around the Sun it collides with this debris stream and the cometary debris particles hit our atmosphere to become “shooting or falling stars.”
Traveling at 37 miles per second (133,000 miles per hour), these cometary bits hit the atmosphere 80 miles up and heat the atmosphere white hot, which is what we see. The bits are usually the size of a grain of sand, but they can also be as big as a pebble or a little larger.
Speed plus size makes for a lot of “oohhs and aahhhs” while we watch the Perseids through the night. Research by NASA has determined that of the dozen or so annual meteor showers, the Perseids produce the largest number of fireballs or meteors that are as bright or brighter than the planet Venus. Last year the Full Supermoon and less than clear weather inferred with the Perseids.
The Washington, D.C. region has a truly perfect location to watch this “fun for the whole family” celestial spectacle: our very own Shenandoah National Park. On Wednesday at 9 p.m., the park will host a Perseids Star Party at three locations: Dickey Ridge Visitor Center lawn (mile 4.6 on Skyline Drive); Big Meadows (mile 51); and Loft Mountain amphitheater (mile 79.5).
According to a Shenandoah National Park press release:
Dickey Ridge Visitor Center and Loft Mountain amphitheaters.
Rangers and volunteers from local astronomy clubs will provide constellation tours and opportunities to view the night sky through telescopes. Rangers and volunteers will be on site until 11 p.m., but visitors are welcome to stay longer to continue to view the meteor shower, which will peak before dawn.
Greg Redfern will present “The Perseids, Falling Stars at Shenandoah National Park” in the Byrd Visitor Center auditorium (mile 51). He will discuss the Perseid meteor shower, meteor showers in general, and the basics of photographing Shenandoah National Park’s night skies. Rangers and volunteer astronomers will provide telescope viewing and constellation tours near the Rapidan Fire Road gate at Big Meadows. Rangers and volunteers will be on site until 11 p.m.
Park visitors are welcome to stay longer to see the Perseids at these three locations, and I will be at Big Meadows until dawn. You do not need any equipment or know-how to enjoy the show. Just find a place where you can put a lounge chair or blanket to see the sky.
Starting at 11 p.m. in the northeast the constellation for which this meteor shower is named, Perseus, hangs low above the horizon and will rise higher as the night progresses. A meteor that is part of the shower can be traced back to Perseus. Sporadic meteors that are not part of the shower can be seen during the night, as well.
The shower should improve after midnight and Perseids can appear anywhere in the sky but looking straight up gives you the widest viewing area — this is where the lounge chair or blanket come in handy.
If you are a city dweller, you may still see the brightest Perseids as long as you are not staring into a streetlight or nestled in amongst tall buildings. The view of the Perseids is worth it from the suburbs as long as lights and obstructions are minimized as best you can.
If you can’t make it to the Park you can still observe the Perseid Meteor Shower by a very novel and cool means.
As I write this, I am listening to meteor radar — yes radar that scans for incoming meteors as well as satellites and space debris. It is a fascinating way — just heard one — to monitor a meteor shower like the Perseids. Essentially the louder a ping is, the brighter the meteor would be in the sky.
You can listen during the day and night, so tune your browser to http://spaceweatherradio.com to listen in just like you would go out to watch.
Enjoy the shower with family, friends or your significant other. Some food and beverages are an added plus. Be sure to have extra clothing as it can get cool at night. You can book a room and enjoy fine dining at the park if you want to make a full day and night of it.
Learn more about the Perseids as I discuss the shower with Fox 5’s Annie Yu and Mike Thomas.
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