#bioPGH Blog: Perseid Meteor Shower
Aug 11

#bioPGH Blog: Perseid Meteor Shower

By Dr. Sarah States, Manager, Phipps Research Institute for Biophilia and Science Engagement

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. From the best times to plant seasonal flora and enjoy their peak blooms, to astronomical events and creatures to keep an eye and ear out for, Phipps will keep you in the know with what’s going on in our environment!

Coming to a sky near you: the Perseid meteor shower!  Even if you’re not an astronomer, you’ve likely heard of the Perseids, one of the best known meteor showers of the year. This year, we can expect far more meteors that usual, and since the Perseids coincide with summer vacation and August’s mild nighttime temperatures, this shower will be a truly stellar addition to your summer bucket list.   

The Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus, the shower’s radiant, the apparent point from which the meteors appear. The meteors are dust fragments left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years. The comet was named after Lewis Swift and Horace P. Tuttle, two astronomers who independently discovered it in 1862. Observers are in luck this year: there will be more meteors per hour, because Jupiter’s gravitational tug has concentrated the dust. Under ideal conditions, you may see up to 200 meteors per hour. However, the peak of this shower is quite brief, so try to get outside on the evenings of Thurs., Aug. 11 and Fri., Aug. 12. Even if you can’t observe during the peak, there will still be meteors up to a week later. Additionally, the waxing gibbous moon is in our favor for viewing the shower: it’s currently just past its first quarter, so it will be less bright than a full moon and will set before 1 a.m., leaving several hours for moon-free meteor viewing.  

Let’s take a moment to clarify some astronomical terminology: "shooting stars" aren’t actually stars, they’re tiny comet or asteroid fragments, usually the size of a grain of sand. However, even something this small can generate a dramatically bright light as it burns up in the atmosphere. What we call these fragments depends on their location: they’re referred to as meteoroids in space, once they enter the atmosphere (and become "shooting stars"), they’re meteors, and if they make it to the ground — a very rare occurrence — they’re called meteorites. 

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: This year, the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh will host six Perseid meteor shower observation events at two different venues. These events are open to the public but are weather dependent, so be sure the check the website each night. More information and directions can be found here.

For those watching at home, make outdoor viewing more comfortable by using a reclining lawn chair or air mattress. Bring a couple extra layers — even if it’s a warm night, you can get chilled quickly if you’re not moving around. If you live in a light-polluted area or the weather is cloudy (as is common in Pittsburgh), you can watch the Perseids on Ustream. The broadcast will run overnight on Thurs., Aug. 11 and Fri., Aug. 12, starting at 10 p.m. EST. Additionally, here’s a fun at-home science project for kids to explore the relationship between meteorites and the craters they create.

Continue the Conversation: Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.

Earthsky.org | Perseids 2016 
Will you see a bumper crop of Perseid meteors? | Sky & Telescope
Perseid Meteor Shower Guide | Space.com
Viewing the 2016 Perseids | American Meteor Society
Perseids on UStream | NASA
Shooting Star Science | Scientific American

Select photos © NASA/Bill Ingalls; Navicore (CC BY 3.0)