The Best Meteor Shower of the Year Starts Wednesday Night

Some 100 meteors an hour will blaze across the sky tomorrow night—the Perseids are back for their annual visit. While they've been visible since late July and will continue to be through late August, the annual peak of the show begins late tomorrow night, August 12, and will be at its most spectacular in the early morning hours of August 13. 

Named after the constellation Perseus, where the meteors appear to originate, the Perseids are actually the tail of dust, ice, gas, and gravel—much of it more than 1000 years old—following the Swift-Tuttle comet, which orbits the Sun every 133 years. As the Earth moves through Swift-Tuttle's vast debris field on its own orbit, bits of this debris smash into the Earth's atmosphere at 140,000 mph, disintegrating in dramatic streaks of light.

The constellation Perseus—named after the mythological Greek warrior who beheaded Medusa, among other legendary exploits—rises in the northeastern sky around 10 p.m. local time. The show begins on August 12 soon after and continues through the early morning of August 13, peaking around 4 a.m. The American Meteor Society has a nice guide to watching this year's show. (Pro tip: bring a reclining lawn chair.)  

It should be a fantastic display this year thanks to dark skies. In 2014 the shower peaked during a so-called Super Moon, whose reflected sunlight flooded the sky, limiting how many meteors could be seen. But this year the peak of the shower—when the Earth moves through the densest band of debris—arrives right before the new moon, meaning the skies will be optimally dark. If you're in a city, light pollution will interfere with the show. In a rural area you'll be able to see three to ten times as many meteors—and perhaps spot the Milky Way in an edge-on view of our galaxy, witnessed from our location in the lonely boondocks of a spiral arm far from the galactic center:

To create this image, three cameras took continuous time-lapse pictures on the platform of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, located in Chile, during the nights of 12–13 and 13–14 August 2010. Image credit: European Southern Observatory, Flickr // CC BY 2.0 

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama will host a live Ustream broadcast from 10 p.m. EDT to 2 a.m. EDT highlighting the science behind the meteor shower and NASA research related to meteors and comets. During the broadcast, you can tweet questions to @NASA_Marshall using #askNASA.

And if you're anywhere near the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center on Wallops Island, VA, watch the show with NASA educators on nearby Assateague Island. After an astronomy 101 presentation, everyone will decamp for the great outdoors for night sky observations through telescopes and binoculars beginning at 8:45 p.m. EST.

There are countless other viewing events going on across the country. Find a local astronomy group or observatory near you—or simply grab some binoculars. 

NASA created a composite image five years ago—the last time we had dark skies for the Perseids—of the skies above the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.: 

A composite of more than 100 individual meteor images. The linear streaks are meteors, most of them Perseids; the dotted arcs are stars; and the brightest arc on the left side is the moon. Image credit: NASA/MSFC/MEO

By the way, Swift-Tuttle will make its next closest approach to Earth on August 5, 2126. While in the past there had been some fear that the comet could smash into Earth at some point, recalculations have put us in the clear—at least until the fifth millennium CE. People alive then should keep an eye on the skies around September 15, 4479.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
ESO, A. Müller et al.
Here's the First Confirmed Image of a Planet Being Born
ESO, A. Müller et al.
ESO, A. Müller et al.

One of the newest landmarks in the observable universe has finally been captured, according to the European Southern Observatory. The image, snapped at its Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, marks the first time a newborn planet has been seen as it forms. 

The image was documented by SPHERE, an instrument at the VLT that's built to identify exoplanets. It shows a planet, dubbed PDS 70b, taking shape in the disc of gas and star dust surrounding the young dwarf star PDS 70. In the past, astronomers have caught glimpses of what may have been new planets forming, but until now it had been impossible to tell whether such images just showed shapes in the dust or the beginnings of true planet formation. The results of the research will be shared in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics [PDF].

This latest cornograph (an image that blocks the light of a star to make its surroundings visible) depicts the new planet clearly as a bright blob beside the black star. The two bodies may look close in the photo, but PDS 70b is roughly 1.8 billion miles from PDS 70, or the distance of Uranus to the Sun. SPHERE also recorded the planet's brightness at different wavelengths. Based on information gathered from the instrument, a team of scientists led by Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy says that PDS 70b is a gas giant a few times the mass of Jupiter with a surface temperature around 1830°F and a cloudy atmosphere.

Astronomers known that planets form from solar clouds which stars leave behind when they come into a being, but until now, the details surrounding the phenomena have been mysterious. “Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly understood early stages of planetary evolution,” astronomer André Müller said in a press release. “We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.”

This is just the latest history-making image captured by the ESO's Very Large Telescope. In the last 20 years, it has documented nebulae, light from gravitational waves, and interacting galaxies.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
Saturn and a Strawberry Moon Will Brighten Night Skies This Week
iStock
iStock

Summer has officially arrived. That means the weather is finally warm enough in parts of the country to lay down a blanket in your backyard and spend the night staring at the sky. This week is especially exciting for stargazers. According to Mashable, Saturn will be visible in the sky beside a "strawberry moon."

One of the first major celestial events of the season takes place Wednesday, June 27. The Earth will fall directly between Saturn and the Sun on Wednesday and a brightly shining Saturn will be visible in the eastern sky after the Sun goes down. The best time to spot the ringed planet is around midnight, and it will appear in the sky for the next several months.

On Wednesday, when Saturn is at its brightest, the sky will present another treat. A full strawberry moon will rise not far from Saturn's spot around 12:53 a.m. EDT that night and accompany the planet as it moves across the sky. The name isn't a reference to the Moon's hue, but to the time of year when it appears: A strawberry moon is the first full moon of summer, and it was once used by farmers to mark the beginning of strawberry picking season.

These two events are just the start of a promising time of year for astronomy fans. Sync your digital planner to this space calendar so you don't miss out on any other big dates, like the partial solar eclipse on August 11.

[h/t Mashable]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios