What a year it’s been for space exploration! NASA debuted its Space Launch System with the Artemis I mission where they completed a flyby of the moon. The goal was a proof of concept for a rocket system that one day might allow humans to live and work off of Earth. The more immediate goal is to put astronauts back on the moon by 2025. We also got the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope in June of some of the earliest light and structures in the universe. And in September, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will pass Jupiter’s moon Europa within 220 miles giving us the closest-ever look at the ice shell that covers it. And scattered throughout the year are celestial events, like the Perseid meteor shower, that we have the pleasure of observing from the comfort of Earth.
In fact, we are currently flying by Comet Swift-Tuttle’s leftover bits of debris, ice, and rock. We pass through the Perseid parent comet’s debris annually. The comet takes about 130 years to orbit the Sun, but Earth intersects its orbit each year giving us a look at everything the comet leaves behind. The Perseids got their name from the constellation Perseus. In peak mornings, the meteors can be traced backward and seem to (but don’t really) originate from the constellation thus earning their name from the hero. The shower typically peaks in early August days but begins mid-July and continues through late August. Though the peak days vary, the heaviest portion of the meteor shower is typically between August 11 to 13.
As with any space object we can’t control, many wonder whether there’s a possibility of meteorites from this comet – or the comet itself – hitting the Earth. The answer is actually yes. But before you panic, let me explain: Yes, but meteorites are generally quite flimsy. Comets are made of ice while meteorites are the rocky or metallic remnants of comets. But they aren’t strong enough to go past our atmosphere to impact the Earth. This means they usually burn up or disintegrate upon reaching our atmosphere. As for Comet Swift-Tuttle, there is a minuscule possibility that its trajectory changes enough to hit us eventually but scientists calculate that it won’t approach Earth again until 2126. And even then, it’s predicted that it will only come as close as 14 million miles away. After that, they predict it won’t ever come closer than 80,000 miles away. So I think we’re safe and can enjoy the comet as one of many space wonders.
Now, how can we see the Perseid meteors this year? Unfortunately, we might not be able to see the peak without the help of very powerful telescopes and great timing. This is because of the Sturgeon Moon on August 11. It’s the last supermoon of 2022 and bright enough that it will obscure Perseid’s peak on August 12 and 13. Usually, viewers can see anywhere between 50 to 100 meteors per hour during the peak on a clear, dark night. This year, we can expect an average of 10 to 20 visible meteors per hour, according to NASA astronomer Bill Cooke. The best time to look for these meteors is pre-dawn when the moon is below the horizon and a few days before the shower’s peak (for example, tonight, August 9).
If you’re in an area with too much light pollution, however, the Virtual Telescope Project’s livestream of the event is available for viewing. Starting at 9 p.m. EDT on August 9, they will share any meteors captured by the telescope’s wide-field cameras.
It’s incredible to be able to capture such a fascinating event each year. If you miss it this year, make sure to mark your calendar for 2023! And who knows, it might be clear enough then to capture your own great images.
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