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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.

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Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Space
Look Up! The Lyrid Meteor Shower Arrives Saturday Night
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Scott Butner, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

There is a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, but this weekend, look up and you might see several of them. Between 11:59 p.m. on April 21 and dawn on Sunday, April 22, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll see a shooting star streaking across the night sky every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know.

WHAT IS THE LYRID METEOR SHOWER?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

HOW CAN I SEE IT?

Saturday night marks a first quarter Moon (visually half the Moon), which by midnight will have set below the horizon, so it won't wash out the night sky. That's great news—you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Saturday night, your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrids. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

WHAT ELSE IS GOING ON UP THERE?

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

THERE'S BAD WEATHER HERE! WHAT DO I DO?

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of the 22nd. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on the 23rd and 24th, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrids will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 6, the Eta Aquariids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

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Space
New NASA Satellite Called TESS Could Discover Thousands of New Planets

Since NASA’s Kepler spacecraft launched in 2009, the space agency has found and confirmed a whopping 2343 new planets. Of those, 30 are considered to be situated in a “habitable zone,” an area in which a planet’s surface could theoretically contain water.

A new satellite, set to launch today, is expected to find thousands more planets outside of our solar system, known as exoplanets. TESS, short for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is NASA’s latest effort to plumb the depths and darkness of outer space in search of other Earth-like planets—including those that could potentially support life.

TESS is slated to complete a two-year survey of the “solar neighborhood,” a general region which comprises more than 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. To find these outlier planets, NASA scientists will be keeping an eye out for temporary changes in brightness, which indicate that a planet is blocking its host star.

According to Martin Still, the program scientist working on the TESS mission, the launch comes “with certainty” that TESS will find many nearby exoplanets. "We expect to find a whole range of planet sizes, between planets the size of Mercury or even the Moon—our Moon—to planets the same size as Jupiter and everything in between,” Still said in a NASA interview.

While the Kepler mission was considered a major success, NASA noted that most of the planets it recorded are those that orbit faint, faraway stars, making it difficult to conduct follow-up observations. The stars that TESS plans to survey will be 30 to 100 times brighter than those observed by its predecessor. This allows for newly detected planets and their atmospheres to be characterized more easily.

“Before Kepler launched, we didn't know for sure if Earth-sized planets existed,” Elisa V. Quintana, a NASA astrophysicist, told Reddit. “Kepler was a statistical survey that looked at a small patch of sky for four years and taught us that Earths are everywhere. TESS is building on Kepler in the sense that TESS wants to find more small planets but ones that orbit nearby, bright stars. These types of planets that are close to us are much more easy to study, and we can measure their masses from telescopes here on Earth.”

The most common categories of exoplanets are Earth- and Super Earth–sized masses—the latter of which are larger than Earth but smaller than Uranus and Neptune.

TESS is scheduled to launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at 6:32pm EDT today.

For more information about TESS, check out this video from NASA.

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