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The nights of the Perseids

Posted: August 11, 2009

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The meteor season will explode into full swing over the next few days as the Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak over the nights of 11-12 and 12-13 August. Despite being hampered by the glare of the last quarter moon rising around 10pm BST, the Perseids are full of fast, bright meteors with long trains shooting through the night sky. If you can blot out some of the Moon’s light behind a tree or nearby building, observers should be able to see at least one meteor per minute, and quite possibly up to 100 per hour. The actual peak in activity falls at 4pm BST on the afternoon of 12 August, meaning the nights before and after should be equally productive.

The Perseid radiant. AN graphic by Greg Smye-Rumsby.

The weather forecast is patchy for parts of the UK, but generally the warm summer nights make the Perseids one of the more attractive prospects for casual observers. The actual meteors themselves are tiny particles of dust left behind by the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, shooting from a radiant (direction) in the constellation Perseus, hence the name. However, the best regions of the sky to look are towards Cygnus and the Summer Triangle during the late evening, and Pegasus during the wee hours, as the meteors shoot through those constellations.

The Perseid meteor shower actually lasts from late July until the third weak of August but, aside from a couple of days either side of maximum, the meteor rates are low with a mere five or so per hour. There are also the sporadic background meteors that shoot through the sky every now and then in random directions, just bits of space dust that get in the way of Earth’s passage through space, but it is important not to confuse these with those of the Perseids.

Staring up at the sky constantly for an hour or two will almost certainly result in a cricked neck, so here are some tips for more comfortable viewing! First, break out the deck chairs or garden recliners from the garage – they’ll allow you to sit at an angle staring upwards. Second, wrap up warm – as pleasant as summer nights can be, if you’re going to sit outside for several hours you will begin to get cold as the night progresses. Taking a flask or some snacks outside with you might help too, so you don’t have to keep going back into the house and ruining your dark adaptation.

While you can just sit back and enjoy the event, some observers also like to record what they see, to help monitor the behaviour of the shower from year to year. Some Perseids can be as bright as the brightest stars, such as Vega (magnitude 0) or Deneb (magnitude +1.26) in Vega and Cygnus respectively, or as bright as Jupiter (magnitude -2.9 low in the constellation Capricornus) or even Venus (magnitude -4 in early morning skies). Some leave behind lingering orange trails or on odd occasions appear as fireballs.

Whether you decide to record the meteor shower or just sit back and take in the view is up to you, just make sure you enjoy it. You can download a PDF form on which to record your observations, and the British Astronomical Association’s Meteor Section are always glad to receive reports from observers – you can find details on their website.

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