‘Fireball Champions,’ Earth Grazers: Perseid Meteors Set Sky Ablaze
The best meteor show of the year is here, and it promises to be rife with fireballs.
August’s sky highlight is the starry rain known as the Perseid meteor shower, whose shooting stars can shine as brightly as Venus or Jupiter. NASA telescopes have been seeing such meteors since the end of July.
"We have found that one meteor shower produces more fireballs than any other," said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in a statement. "It's the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on August 12th and 13th."
The Perseids’ parent comet, Swift-Tuttle, is larger than most, with its nucleus at 16 miles across as compared to just a couple of miles for most comets, NASA said. This likely accounts for the higher number of fireballs as Mother Earth makes her annual pass through the comet’s tail as the comet heads toward the sun, Cooke said. Those larger than usual chunks slamming into Earth’s atmosphere at 132 miles per hour make for some spectacular viewing.
The 2012 show did not disappoint, and that had planets in it. This year the moon is not as bright, and Venus and Jupiter are not as prominent, as in other years.
Start checking out the skies on August 10 and 11, Space.com says. But best viewing is between 10:30 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. local time on the nights of August 12th and 13th. And the best place to be is deep in the country, away from city lights. That will afford great views of not only fireballs but also the fainter, normal meteors, which could be as frequent as 100 per hour. They appear to emanate from the constellation known as Perseus, and they will start slowly before midnight, building to a peak before sunrise when the constellation is high overhead, NASA said. The only downside, Space.com reports, is that over the Northern Hemisphere the shower's exact peak will occur during the day. But there will be plenty to see at night as well, Space.com said.
"Get away from city lights," said Cooke. "While fireballs can be seen from urban areas, the much greater number of faint Perseids is visible only from the countryside."
Another breed of shooting star is better seen just after sunset, according to Spaceweather.com. It’s called an earthgrazer, and it streaks slowly and more colorfully across the sky as it skims the top of the atmosphere.
“The best time to look for earthgrazers is between 9:30 and 10:30 pm local time as the shower's radiant climbs over the northeastern horizon,” Spaceweather.com said. “That's when the geometry favors meteoroids skimming across the top of the atmosphere like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond. Earthgrazers are slow and colorful.”
No matter which ones you’re looking for, many places in Indian country afford the best views.
“I caught it good in the high desert area in southern California on the Cauhilla Indian Reservation, total darkness on a huge non-developed plot of land,” wrote an anonymous commenter on Space.com last year. “Saw around 40 maybe, and 10 were huge streakers.”
Below, NASA talks about and illustrates the Perseids and why they are more firebally than any other meteor shower.