The Perseid meteor shower is always a highlight of the astronomical year, frequently bringing one of the most consistent meteor showers to the night sky in late summer. The warm weather and often favorable moon phases mean the Perseid’s are also one of the most comfortable meteor showers to enjoy. 2016 is expected to be even better than usual: An outburst of meteors is forecasted, resulting in nearly double the typical rate of meteors per hour during the showers peak from August 11th to 12th.
The meteor shower occurs each year as Earth passes through the debris tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, resulting in meteors for several days with a peak of 1-2 days typically in mid-August. Comet Swift-Tuttle is the largest known object to repeatedly pass by Earth, with a nucleus about 16 miles wide. It last passed by in 1992, and won’t pass again until 2126. Our respective orbits, however, mean that Earth passes through the debris trail of the comet every year.
Pieces of comet debris that interact with Earth burn up in our atmosphere, heating up and burning — becoming visible to our eye as “shooting stars” or meteors. If a piece makes it all the way to the surface of the Earth without disintegrating completely, it is known as a “meteorite”, but these are more excessively rare.
This year is expected to be particularly interesting as Earth passes through a crowded area of the comets tail, meaning the Perseid meteor shower is in “outburst”. In simple terms, the gravity of surrounding planets has caused certain areas of debris to clump together, and Earth will pass right through one of them — according to forecasts — in just a few weeks.
The only thing to do now is to sit back and watch! For that, we recommend getting the heck away from the lights of New York City. Head out to a more suburban area, away from light pollution, either on Long Island or in the suburbs of New Jersey, New York, or Connecticut. Go to a darker area and give your eyes about 30 minutes to adjust. Don’t forget a blanket!
PS – There will be a bright moon on the first night of the shower, August 11th, until 1am — but the moon will set thereafter.
Stay tuned for further updates in the next few days including details on the predicted amount of meteors per hour.