The 2021 Perseid Meteor Shower

Meteor streaking across the skies above Puerto Rico on August 9th., 2021

Look up! The Perseid Meteor Shower is ongoing through August 23rd. We’ll be moving through the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower from August 11th through August 13th this week!

What is the Perseid Meteor Shower?

The Perseid meteor shower is active each year around July 17th through August 26th, with a peak around August 12th into August 13th. The Perseids are particles released from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle during its numerous returns to the inner solar system. (Sky & Telescope)
The Perseid meteor shower is active each year around July 17th through August 26th, with a peak around August 12th into August 13th. The Perseids are particles released from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle during its numerous returns to the inner solar system. (Sky & Telescope)

The stream of debris is called the Perseid cloud and stretches along the orbit of the comet Swift–Tuttle. The cloud consists of particles ejected by the comet as it travels on its 133-year orbit. Most of the particles have been part of the cloud for around a thousand years. However, there is also a relatively young filament of dust in the stream that was pulled off the comet in 1865, which can give an early mini-peak the day before the maximum shower.

The shower is visible from mid-July each year, with the peak in activity between 9th and 14th August, depending on the particular location of the stream. During the peak, the rate of meteors reaches 60 or more per hour. They can be seen all across the sky; however, because of the shower’s radiant in the constellation of Perseus, the Perseids are primarily visible in the Northern Hemisphere.

While many meteors arrive between dawn and noon, they are usually not visible due to daylight. Some can also be seen before midnight, often grazing the Earth’s atmosphere to produce long bright trails and sometimes fireballs. Most Perseids burn up in the atmosphere while at heights above 80 kilometers.

Meteors come from leftover comet particles and bits from broken asteroids. When comets come around the sun, the dust they emit gradually spreads into a dusty trail around their orbits. Every year the Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere, where they disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky.

The Perseid’s Peak

Meteor showers are very predictable events, so astronomers know exactly when you have the best chance of seeing them.

Perseids are active from July 17th to August 24th. They reach a strong maximum on August 12th or 13th, depending on the year. Normal rates seen from rural locations range from 50-75 shower members per hour at maximum. The Perseids are particles released from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle during its numerous returns to the inner solar system. They are called Perseids since the radiant (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is located near the prominent constellation of Perseus the hero when at maximum activity.

As a result of light pollution, observers in rural areas will see more than observers in a city. Nights without the Moon in the sky will reveal the most meteors.

Conditions for Viewing

Where to look in the sky during the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower (timeanddate.com)
Where to look in the sky during the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower (timeanddate.com)

You can look up at the night sky nearly every night this week to see if you can catch a glimpse of a meteor. Generally, the best times for viewing will be between 11:00 PM and sunrise, which is generally from 5:56 AM this week.

The Perseids are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere during the dark hours (after moonset and before dawn). Find an area well away from the city or street lights. Come prepared with a sleeping bag, blanket, or lawn chair. Lie flat on your back with your feet facing east and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt, and you will begin to see meteors. Be patient—the show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.

But, there are impediments to viewing in Trinidad and Tobago.

Firstly, light pollution is a major issue in most populated areas across Western and Northern Trinidad and the Western half of Tobago. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about this beyond traveling into darker areas such as parts of Northern Coastal Trinidad or Eastern and Southern parts of the island.

Weatherwise, a tropical wave is approaching the region, causing cloudy skies on Thursday night into the weekend.

You can use an AR app like Night Sky on your smartphone to track down the constellation. The best place to look is to the north and north-northeast and near the horizon, gradually moving higher into the skies as the night into morning progresses.

Between as many as 160 and 200 meteors dazzle in Earth’s atmosphere every hour during the display’s peak. They zoom through the atmosphere at around 133,000 miles per hour and burst about 60 miles overhead. The moon is not too full right now, which could make for good viewing, with the shower most active in pre-dawn hours according to the International Meteor Organization.

It’s Meteors – Not an Asteroid to Comet

Down-to-earth Journey of a Meteor Image: Space.com
Down-to-earth Journey of a Meteor Image: Space.com

It may be self-explanatory, as it is literally in the name of the shower, but the “shooting stars” you may see in the skies over the next several nights are meteors.

The terminology of these space objects matter, as a meteorite would have impacts to land, while a meteor does not.

Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between a meteor and a meteorite or an asteroid, meteoroid or comet? Here are the answers to all your questions regarding Meteor Terminology. Image: Vincent Perlerin/AMS

Meteor and meteorite strikes are more common than you might think. Dust-grain size meteoroids strike the Earth’s atmosphere almost constantly, but they often go unnoticed. Meteoroids between a millimeter and a centimeter burn up in the atmosphere and appear to us as shooting stars.

Larger strikes are less common—a one-meter meteoroid strikes the Earth once each year on average and would reach the ground as smaller debris, while a 100-meter meteoroid strikes the Earth approximately every 10,000 years, according to a Tufts University fact sheet. Meteoroids over 1 kilometer hitting Earth are catastrophic events that occur every 1 million years on average.

Meteoroids do not discriminate where they land, nor where they enter the earth’s atmosphere. Hence, it is well within the possibility that events such as this could happen across Trinidad, Tobago, or any other Caribbean islands.

But medium-size strikes can be dramatic spectacles—and in some cases, dangerous. The Chelyabinsk meteor that struck southern Russia in February 2013 blew out windows and caused indirect injuries to almost 1,500 people.

Tips for Viewing

via EarthSky.org

1. Realize that this shower rises gradually to its peak. Few meteor showers are a one-night event. You could start tonight!

2. Be aware of the time of moonset each night. As much as possible, in the weeks between now and the peak, you’ll want to be out looking after moonset. 

3. Watch in the hours before dawn Most meteor showers are best after midnight, and the Ursids are no exception. After midnight, the part of Earth you’re standing on has turned into the meteor stream, which means the radiant point for the shower will be above your horizon.

4. Avoid city lights. This should go without saying, but just a reminder. A wide-open area – a field or a lonely country road – is best if you’re serious about watching meteors.

5. Camp! Nothing beats a set-up before the night begins. Of course, you’ll never see as many meteors in the evening as you will after midnight, but – if you are watching during the evening hours – you might catch an earthgrazer, which is a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor, traveling horizontally across your sky. Earthgrazers might be seen even in bright moonlight. They tend to be seen in the late evening or around midnight.

6. Make yourself comfortable. Sprawl out upon a reclining lawn chair, with an open sky view. Bring along a blanket or sleeping bag. Your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the dark, so give yourself at least an hour of observation time.

7. Watch with friend or friends, and try facing in different directions so that if someone sees a meteor, that person can call out – “meteor!” – to the rest.

8. Notice the meteors’ speeds and colors, and watch for meteor trains.  A meteor train is a persistent glow in the air, left by some meteors after they have faded from view. Trains are caused by luminous ionized matter left in the wake of this incoming space debris. They linger for a moment or two after the meteor has gone.

9. Embrace the night. We hear people bubble with excitement about seeing meteors in all sorts of conditions – moon or no moon – city lights or no city lights. So, camp out and make a night of it! Read more.

Check out other stories on celestial events.

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