ALL ABOUT METEORS - The Perseid Meteors of August - Observing and Enjoying

by P. Clay Sherrod, Arkansas Sky Observatory

The famous PERSEID Meteor Shower will pass across the Earth's orbit once again this year in early August, but this year is particularly favorable for MANY meteors to be seen.  Some astronomers are calling for quite a celestial show from this shower in various years, yet others are not so optimistic.   As Fred Whipple of Harvard once said, "Predicting the outcome of a meteor shower is no easier that picking the winner of a horse race...."

The moon for any meteor shower should always be absent from the sky, or in a very small phase, or its light will interfere with sighting of fainter members of the shower.  Note that optimum times for any shower to show the peak number of meteors is typically AFTER midnight.

For the Perseids, do not wait for August 11-12 however....this is a long duration shower and meteors will be easily seen during the first week of the month when skies are hampered by only a thin to growing waxing crescent moon. 

In 1992 Comet Swift-Tuttle, the parent object that spawns the Perseid meteoroid cloud, shed a great amount of dust in its wake and now sets the stage for intense activity as the earth passes through that debris; this will be the FIRST year that the earth has actually gone directly through this debris cloud since it was intensified.    Although meteors can be expected to be seen just as soon as the skies darken on the evening of August 11, the peak is scheduled for early in morning of August 12 (about 4 a.m. CDT) and throughout the evening of August 12.   NOTE that there is some indication that a SECONDARY PEAK might actually be seen in ideal skies on the MORNING after each peak date for the Perseids, somewhere around dawn or just before on that morning, as the earth will be sweeping through a cloud of material that has been ejected from the parent comet (below) of this dependable meteor shower.  In fact, it is possible that this secondary cloud might produce more meteors in any given year than the main swarm. 

Note that Comet Swift-Tuttle's (P/1862) one-revolution trail from 1862 will pass inside the Earth’s orbit during some years.   If there were a closer approach of this comet to the earth, a spectacular meteor storm would be expected...but with these conditions and no prior such close approaches to compare to, it is uncertain what kind of a shower this will give in most years.  Because of similar conditions, but with the earth passing directly through the major debris pocket of the comet, perhaps the best meteor shower of history will occur with the Perseids in 2028.

This is a long duration shower, with many (as many as two dozen per hour) being seen from August 9 through the 20th; during the PEAK, expect to see at least 60 or more (perhaps double that number!) around 2 a.m., streaming from the constellation of Perseus, high in the northeastern sky.  Best views are afforded by positioning your feet to the EAST and facing directly overhead.   A move is underway for observers to actually monitor the MOON during the Perseids via CCD, digital and visual means to look for flashes that may indeed be part of impacts of Perseid meteorites against the lunar surface.  SEE "ALERTS" for any details
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