How ‘bout that sky-crane landing Curiosity made on Mars, huh? Over a ton of the finest in human science engineering all moving from 3.6 miles per second to stationary on the surface of Mars in seven minutes flat. It must’ve truly lit up the Martian atmosphere for any would-be Martians on the ground…
The good news is, this weekend YOU can witness a similar fireworks display, gracing the skies of Earth in the form of the Perseid meteor shower. This is the most anticipated meteor shower of 2012. I KNOW… meteors are tiny dust-like grains of cometary debris, not spacecraft from another world, so you can save us the inevitable commentary… but DO drop us a line with your tales of Perseid-awesomeness, we are always interested. DO NOT, however, call Meteorite Man Geoffrey Notkin about “rocks I found the next morning in my yard,” although I’m sure someone will, as they do every year. Meteorites, like you see in the Smithsonian and meteor showers caused by the Earth’s annual intersection of a stream of cometary debris are two separate entities. To date, a meteorite fall has never been linked to a meteor shower.
Movement of the Perseid radiant through the month of August…
(Created by the Author in Starry Night).
This year, the Perseids have a number of things going for them. First up, the predicted peak occurs on August 12th around 13:19 Universal Time or 09:19 Eastern Daylight Savings Time. This is a day earlier than usual due to 2012 being a leap year, and multiple peaks could arrive early or late. I typically start watching on successive mornings a few days prior and as an added bonus this year’s Perseids fall on the weekend. Also, the Moon will be at a waning crescent phase, and only 23% illuminated on the morning of Sunday, August 12th. It will rise around 2PM local on that same date, and will prove to be only a minor hindrance for your meteor viewing pleasure. In fact, the same is true for this year’s Leonids and Geminds, and we only realized last year that these three showers are spaced about 95 and 27 days apart respectively on the calendar, which can be roughly evenly divided by the Moon’s 29.5 day lunation phase. The upshot of this is, IF the Moon phase is favorable during the Perseids on a particular year, its generally good during the Leonids and Geminids, and vice versa.
This year, the peak favors Hawaii and the western Pacific, but keep in mind that it can arrive early or late. This year, predictions are for a max Zenithal Hourly Rate of 90-100, but in excess of 200 per hour were reported in the early 1990’s & 2004, though last year’s Perseids were down in the range of about 60 per hour due to moonlight.
Note also that the radiant does drift a bit to the east through August as the shower progresses; the Perseids have one of the most northerly radiants of any shower known. In fact, the source of the Perseids wasn’t conclusively identified until 1973, when Brian Marsden studied the return periodic comet 109/P Swift-Tuttle.
Be sure to get out there this weekend and join us, bug spray and thermos of coffee in hand, on Perseid vigil. Follow our handy guide, tweet those meteors to #Meteorwatch, and follow the current activity via the International Meteor Observer’s quick look chart… The Sky is Waiting!