National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS
 

 

Perseids: "Last Chance" for Best Meteor Viewing Tonight

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
August 12, 2009
 
Tonight will be your last chance to see the Perseid meteor shower at its peak—and the annual sky show is especially dazzling this year thanks to a one-time-only boost from Saturn, experts say.

The Perseids light up the night when Earth passes through a trail of debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which swings past the sun roughly every 130 years. (See Perseids pictures.)

(Related: "Comet Swarm Delivered Earth's Oceans?")

Perseids start streaking across the sky as early as July and continue through late August. But the meteors usually peak in mid-August, with average rates of 70 to 80 shooting stars an hour.

Powerful Perseids This Year

This year's Perseids are even showier than normal, with an expected peak rate of a hundred meteors an hour.

Tuesday night through Wednesday dawn offered viewers the best chance to see the most Perseids without as much glare from the waning gibbous—or just past full—moon. (Take a moon facts quiz.)

But the actual peak of this year's Perseids is occuring this afternoon for people in North America. Although the meteors are essentially invisible in daylight, tonight's show could be just as plentiful, if not better.

After tonight, though, the numbers of shooting stars should taper off, with a rare bright streak appearing only occasionally.

Herding Perseids

This year's high number of Perseids is most likely a "gift" from the gas giant Saturn, said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama.

As Swift-Tuttle passes by the sun, the comet leaves debris strung out all along its orbital path through the solar system.

Over time, other forces have acted on those particles. Some have drifted apart, creating a spread that delivers a more consistent shower on Earth.

But Cooke thinks that at some point hundreds of years ago, the comet passed especially close to Saturn, and the pull of that planet's gravity helped concentrate nearby debris into a clump.

This year is special, Cooke said, because we're now passing through the debris herded together by Saturn, and "that clump of particles will encounter Earth only once."
 

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.