Here’s a simple guide for observing the Perseids 2012 meteor shower this weekend, covering five basic questions:
What is the Perseids meteor shower?
The Perseids meteor shower is the most reliable of the active regular meteor showers that happen throughout the year. A meteor shower is a display of meteors (or shooting stars) where you see lots of them in the space of just a few hours. The Perseids occurs around the same time each year, in mid-August, and during the peak of the shower meteor rates increase from just a few an hour (the background rate that you’ll see on any clear, dark night) up to maybe 100 or 200 meteors every hour for observers in the perfect location. Meteorwatchers in the UK (which isn’t ideal for this year’s Perseids shower) will probably see around 30 per hour from dark sites, dropping to a few an hour (still worth watching for) in towns and cities.
How can I observe the meteor shower?
You don’t need any special equipment to observe a meteor shower; just your eyes. Try and get as far from city lights as possible (out into the countryside if you can, or into a local park if not), and get comfortable. You might want to bring a reclining deck chair with you, as that makes meteorwatching much more civilised! Just lie back and take in as much of the sky as possible. If you’re lucky enough to see a good display of meteors, you might see as many as one a minute, maybe more!
Where should I look?
Meteors streak across the whole sky, so you don’t need to look in any specific direction, but of course if you’ve got a tall building or tree that’s blocking the view, or a streetlight nearby that’s a bit glare-y, then put these to your back. The Perseids meteors all appear to streak from a point in the sky (called the radiant) in the constellation of Perseus (hence the name) which rises in the east about 10pm local time, climbing to its highest in the sky towards dawn.
When is it happening?
The peak of the meteor shower will happen some time around 1200 and 1430 UT (1300 and 1530 BST) on Sunday 12 August 2012. This means that observers in the UK will not be able to see the peak of the shower, but on the nights on either side we’ll still see plenty. In fact the peak of the Perseids is several days wide, so you can start meteorwatching now, and carry on well into next week, so that even if this weekend is cloudy you’ll still see some Perseids. Whatever night you’re out you’ll see more the later you’re up. Starting after dusk, the meteor rate will increase each night as Perseus climbs higher in the sky towards dawn.
Why do meteor showers happen?
Meteors are tiny bits of space dust streaking through our atmosphere. These motes of dust float about in space and as the Earth orbits the Sun it hoovers them up. Sometimes the Earth passes through a particularly dense clump of dust, and we get lots of meteors, in a meteor shower. These clumps of dust are left behind by comets as the orbit the Sun, their streaking tails leaving behind a trail of tiny rock particles. The comet that left behind the space-rocks that we’ll see in the Perseids meteor shower is called Swift-Tuttle, after the two astronomers that discovered it in 1862.