One of the best meteor showers of the year is returning this weekend, and NASA has tips for those who want to watch.
Bill Cooke is the manager for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Program, and it’s his job to forecast meteor showers to keep astronauts safe from space debris.
“We basically study meteors and meteoroids and understand the risk they cause to space vehicles,” Cooke said.
From the ground, Cooke can appreciate the show meteor showers put on — and there isn’t a better show than the Perseid meteor shower, which can be seen every summer. The Perseids will peak in the coming nights.
“The good thing about the Perseids is they’re not faint meteors, and there are several fireballs in the shower that create fairly spectacular meteors,” Cooke said. “The Perseids are rich in fireballs, which means the show is pretty decent.”
The meteor shower is caused by small bits of rock and ice — often less than a centimeter across — that broke off the 109P/Swift-Tuttle comet as it passed through our solar system. As these extraterrestrial visitors enter the atmosphere they quickly burn and disintegrate, leaving a spectacular view for Earth’s inhabitants.
The Perseids, in particular, are known for the trail of dust they leave in their wake as they streak through the sky.
“You’ll see the meteor and for several seconds afterward it’ll look like a small trail was left behind,” Cooke said.
Tuning in to the show
The best view of the Perseids will available in the coming nights, Cooke said, with the early morning hours Sunday and Monday being the best time to catch the show. Meteors will be seen streaking across the sky all night, but the most activity will be just before dawn.
Stargazers can expect to see about a meteor per minute during the Perseid’s peak, Cooke said, although some years produce more than double that amount.
The best way to watch the show is to find clear skies far away from city lights. Light pollution can ruin the view, and stargazing is always weather dependent.
“Go outside, get a sleeping bag or easy chair or cot, lie on your back and look straight up,” Cooke said.
The meteors will make their approach from the north, beginning near the constellation Perseus, which gives them their name.
“A lot of articles say look at the constellation Perseus. That’s the last thing you want to do,” Cooke said. “The meteor trails are shorter close to Perseus, whereas if you look further away from Perseus the trails are longer,” and easier to catch.
Before hoping to see any meteors, Cooke said it’s important to give your eyes time to adjust to the night sky. Not just a little bit of time, but at least half an hour or more. The Perseid meteors are small, move very quickly and burn out in less than a second. Human eyes can easily overlook them if they’re not acclimated to the darkness.
“Plan on spending a couple hours out there or longer,” Cooke said. “It’s not something you can look out your living room window and watch.”
That means putting cell phones away as well, Cooke added.
And bringing bug repellent is also a good idea.
WYDaily Assistant Editor Sarah Fearing contributed to this report.