A “falling star” is one of nature’s true spectacles. For a few brief seconds these darting flares that burn across the night time sky will easily out-dazzle their heavenly competition. We may call them “stars” but they’re not really. They’re actually meteors and on almost any night, if you’re diligent, you can spot a few of them every hour. On occasion though, and at quite predictable times, clusters of them known as meteor showers can produce tens, hundreds, or even thousands of blazing trails across the heavens.
But what causes these awe-inspiring displays? Simply put, meteor showers result when the earth’s orbit intersects the trail of a comet. Comets, which are effectively large dirty balls of ice, slash through our solar system on predictable trajectories. When their travels take them near the Sun, part of the comet’s ice is melted which releases bits of solid debris. These small pieces of the comet are scattered along its path and when the Earth later passes through the comet’s trail, the show is on.
The fireworks you’ll eventually see in the sky are the result of meteors that blaze through the Earth’s atmosphere at thousands of miles per hour, ignited by friction. Many of the meteors are the size of a grain of sand and are easily burnt up but, even at their tiny size, put on a spectacular display before disintegrating. Scientists estimate that as many as 4 billion meteors fall through the earth’s atmosphere each day. If large enough when they enter the atmosphere, a few rare survivors called meteorites will eventually impact the ground.
Since astronomers know the paths of various comets that visit our solar system, it’s relatively easy for them to know when and where meteor showers will occur. Scientists divide the sky into 88 segments know as constellations. Meteor showers are named based on the constellation found at that point in the sky where the shower seems to originate.
The next big meteor shower, which will no doubt have stargazers sitting up and taking notice, is called the Perseid, which has its peak activity on August 12th. Named after the Perseus constellation of stars, it very dependably begins each year on August 10th and typically lasts about 5 days. It’s expected to deliver between 50 and 100 meteors per hour. The Perseid constellation rises from the northeast just after 11PM in mid August, but you don’t really need to locate the constellation to enjoy the show. Although the meteors will appear to originate in the Perseid constellation, they will be visible all across the sky. With the new moon (no visible moon) forecast, viewing conditions should be especially good.
Here are some tips for making the most of this upcoming celestial spectacle. Find a good location away from city lights. It would be best to make it a secluded spot where your night vision won’t be affected by car headlights and other glaring light sources. Give yourself a good 10 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness. Lay back on a blanket, lounge chair, or other comfortable surface with the horizon just at the edge of your vision and the stars filling your central field of view. Now relax and enjoy one of nature’s great shows.