The Perseid Meteor Shower and More: August Sky Watching

Searching the Sky, Discovery Place’s sky watching feature

The Perseid Meteor Shower and More: August Sky Watching

Discovery Place Nature

Welcome back to Searching the Sky, Discovery Place’s monthly sky watching and astronomy column. Many of the planets covered in last month’s column, such as Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, will still be visible in the night sky this August. We will also get a great view of one of the most easily identifiable features in the summer sky: the Summer Triangle.

The Summer Triangle is high in the night sky this month, and is so bright that it can be seen in most light-polluted skies. The Summer Triangle is not a constellation, but rather a familiar grouping of stars, or an asterism. This asterism is made up of the stars Altair, Deneb and Vega. Altair is the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle, who served as the bearer of lightning bolts for the god Jupiter in Roman mythology. Deneb is the Arabic word for “tail,” which is fitting as it is the tail of the constellation Cygnus the Swan. The third star in the Summer Triangle, Vega, is one of the brightest stars in our night sky and is a part of Lyra the Harp.

The Perseid meteor shower is also a notable feature of the August night sky. Every year during our orbit around the Sun, we pass through a trail of debris and dust left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. During its orbit around the Sun, this comet passes by Earth and leaves behind a trail or field of debris. As the Earth passes through this trail, debris comes into contact with particles in our atmosphere. This creates friction, which in turn causes some of the debris and dust to burn up. The burning matter is visible in our sky as the streaks of light that we refer to as meteors.

If any meteors pass through our atmosphere and crash onto Earth rather than burning up completely during their descent, they are then categorized as meteorites.

Meteor showers are named for the region of the sky where most of the meteors in the shower seem to originate from.

In the case of the Perseids, most of the debris in the trail is burnt up in our atmosphere in the area where we see the constellation of Perseus. It will peak, or pass through the densest portion of the debris trail, on the evening of August 11, 2018 and into the morning of August 12, as well as on the evening of August 12 and into the morning of August 13. During its peak, the Perseid meteor shower will reach 60-70 MPH - not miles per hour, but meteors per hour!

The best strategy for maximizing the number of meteors that one sees during a shower is to take a wide view of the sky and to use peripheral vision rather than focusing the eye. This way, the viewer is able to see a large portion of the sky and has a better chance of seeing multiple meteors.

In 2019, the Earth will be in the same position in space during August as we complete another orbit around the Sun and, as we once again pass through the trail of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, we will see the Perseids in the same area of the sky.

Happy meteor hunting!