The Perseid meteor shower is our solar system’s annual free August fireworks.
The celestial show has a theoretical peak of 90-100 meteors per hour at more rural locations without light pollution. Because it is the busiest summer meteor shower the Perseids bring thousands of sky watchers out to places like observatories and mountain tops to lie on blankets and crane their necks skyward. The Perseids begin slowly every July and build to a peak around mid August.
So why are 2012’s Perseids anything special?
In 2011, the event fell on the night of a full moon, which meant that most of the ‘shooting stars’ - actually particles of interplanetary dust left over from the comet 109/P Swift-Tuttle that generate streaks of light as they pass through Earth’s atmosphere - were washed out by the bright light of the moon.
But this year the show is ripe for viewing; in California the 2012 Perseids peak just before dawn on Sunday, August 12th, which falls only a handful of days from the darkness of a new moon.
For the best possible show be prepared to drive far from Los Angeles’ considerable light pollution, however. Joshua Tree, anyone?
Will you bring out your lawn chair and sleeping bag for the Perseids this year?
Bill Cooke, astronomer and head of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center