Look Up! The Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend

Kenneth Snyder, Flickr //  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Kenneth Snyder, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Look up tonight and you’ll see streaks of light headed your way. The annual Perseid meteor shower has arrived, and if the skies are clear and light pollution low, you are in for quite a treat: This is easily the best meteor shower of the year. Those who stay up late (or wake really early) are virtually guaranteed to see something.

FROM SLAYER OF MEDUSA TO COMETARY DUST 

The Perseids are the result of a debris field left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. This is a Halley-type comet that orbits the Sun every 133 years. (Its highly eccentric orbit takes it far beyond Pluto in the meantime.) As the comet travels across the solar system, it leaves behind a trail of dust and sand-sized particles that, over the course of centuries and millennia, becomes an increasingly dense field. When the Earth's orbital path crosses this debris, the speed and force of our planet colliding into the comet's phantom particles vaporizes them. A distinctive "shooting star" is the result of energy released by a speck of cometary dust colliding with the atmosphere of a 3.7-octillion-mile celestial object—that would be Earth—moving at 67,000 miles per hour.

The Perseids get their name from the constellation from which they seem to originate: Perseus. Don’t limit yourself to staring at the celestial slayer of Medusa, however. (Though bonus points if you can actually find it.) Meteors will appear across the night sky. The shower was first formally "discovered" in 1835 by astronomer Adolphe Quételet, though it has been observed for millennia. Meteors near the shower’s peak are sometimes called the "tears of St. Lawrence," coinciding with the feast day of St. Lawrence of Rome.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR FIREBALLS

If you are in an area of low light pollution—that is, any remote area away from a city—you will be able to see between 30 and 40 meteors per hour this weekend. Believe it or not, that makes this a bad year for the Perseids shower, down from a possible 150 per hour. Many meteors will be obscured by the big bright Moon still riding high after reaching a full phase earlier this week.

To best experience a meteor shower, NASA recommends you dress for the lower temperatures that come at night and give your eyes a good 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Take a blanket outside, lay back, and take in the sky. Be on the lookout for fireballs, which are particularly bright meteors. (You'll know one when you see it.)

The best time to see the Perseids shower is between midnight and dawn on Saturday. If you miss the Perseids early Saturday morning due to bad weather (or just sleeping in), you can try again at the same time each early morning well into next week. If being outside just isn’t your thing, but astronomy is, you can also view the meteor shower online at Slooh, beginning at 8:00 p.m. EDT on Saturday. The Perseids are the perfect warmup for the main event later this month: a total solar eclipse over North America on August 21.

A Lunar Crash May Have Left Behind a Library of Human Civilization on the Moon

Matt Cardy, Getty Images
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

SpaceIL, the Israeli-based private space travel nonprofit backed by billionaire Morris Kahn, came up short in their attempt to land the first commercial payload ever delivered on the Moon. Their Beresheet lander crashed last Thursday, April 11, after a technical glitch prompted its engine to power off and then back on, causing it to come in too fast and strike the lunar surface.

While not ultimately successful, the voyage may have still managed to mark a milestone in the history of lunar exploration. The Arch Mission Foundation, which worked with SpaceIL to put a massive amount of information—including the entirety of Wikipedia—on board, announced this week that the digital library may have survived the impact. That would make it the first substantial repository of knowledge to occupy the Moon.

The data, which was dubbed the Lunar Library, holds an impressive wealth of material—the equivalent of roughly 30 million pages in all. In addition to Wikipedia, there are books selected by Project Gutenberg, 60,000 images, language keys, and a curated selection of music. All of this humanity was packed into 25 nickel discs that are each 40 microns thick. The entire library is roughly the size and shape of a DVD.

Arch Mission Foundation believes that the discs could have survived the impact based on what's known about its trajectory and the crash and is working to confirm its existence. Even if it didn't, there's still something to be said for the idea that "archaeological ruins" of human knowledge now exist there.

The Lunar Library wouldn't be the only human relic left behind. Alan Shepard, the fifth man ever to walk on the Moon in 1971, left golf balls after playing a lunar round. In 1969, the crew of Apollo 11 left a 1.5-inch silicon disk containing goodwill messages from prominent figures in 75 countries written microscopically.

SpaceIL intends to pursue a second lunar lander, with a launch date to be announced. While other countries have landed a vehicle on the Moon—the United States, China, and Russia—this would have marked the first time for a private entity.

[h/t Fast Company]

A Blue Moon—May's Flower Moon—Is Coming Next Month

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Exactly how often is "once in a blue moon"? According to NASA, the celestial occurrence isn't especially rare: A blue moon happens about once every 2.5 years. The next blue moon will appear the night of May 18, 2019, and because the event marks the first full moon of May, it will also be a flower moon.

What Is a Blue Moon?

Instead of describing color, like a blood moon, the term blue moon is reserved for an additional full moon that appears within a certain window of time. There are two types of blue moons: monthly blue moons and seasonal blue moons. A monthly blue moon, the more popular of the two definitions, is the second full moon that occurs in a single calendar month. This usage is fairly recent, and likely originated from an error printed in a 1946 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine.

A seasonal blue moon is the older meaning, and it describes the third moon in a season that has four full moons. Each season—winter, spring, summer, and fall—typically sees three full moons, and in the rare event there are four, the third is singled out as the anomaly. This is sometimes the preferred definition of astronomy-minded people because it's based on natural equinoxes and solstices rather than the Gregorian calendar.

When to See the Blue Flower Moon

The full moon set to light up the night sky in May will be a seasonal blue moon. The time of year it occurs—May—makes it a flower moon. The first full moon of each month has a special name: A worm moon is a full moon in April, and a wolf moon is a full moon in January.

To catch 2019's blue flower moon, look up the night of May 18. The Moon will be at its fullest when it's precisely at 180° ecliptic longitude opposite the Sun—which occurs at 5:11 p.m. ET on May 18.

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