Don’t Miss Your Best Chance to See Meteors Light Up the Night Sky

August 6, 2018

Sometimes we get so caught up with what’s going on right in front of us that we forget to look up at the stars and consider our place in the universe. If you’re in need of a little reminder, the sky has a fantastic light show planned that will leave even the most indifferent speechless.

The Perseid Meteor Shower will rain down meteorites for weeks, peaking on the night of August 12. Here, Perseids blaze across the sky above Mount Shasta.

The Perseid Meteor Shower has been occurring since July 17,  but will peak during the nights of August 11-13. Stargazers can expect dark skies with little to no interference from the Moon for prime viewing of the hundreds of meteors blazing through the night sky.

The best way to see this astral-light show of “shooting stars” is to head out away from city lights a few hours after dusk and look northward, towards the Perseus constellation. (SkyGuide is a great app for helping you locate stars, constellations, and other objects in the night sky.) The meteor shower will be visible all night until the Sun comes up and ruins the view.

The reason behind this spectacular display is the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun about every 130 years and leaves a wide trail of dust. When the Earth passes through this trail, these dust particles light up as they enter our atmosphere leaving a bright trail across the sky. Thankfully, most of these meteoroids burn up before they reach the surface of the Earth.

Sometimes large meteors do make it through the atmosphere and land somewhere on our planet’s surface. Since over 70% of the Earth is covered by water and most meteoroids that make it to the surface are small, it’s rare to experience noticeable impacts.

Meteors from the Perseid Meteor Shower light up the sky at the Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles.

Rare doesn’t mean impossible, though. Just last week, a meteoroid struck the ground just a few miles away from Thule Air Base in Greenland. The object, which is so small it still hasn’t been located, was estimated to have been traveling at about 54,000 MPH (24.4km per second), and the impact created a 2.1 kiloton explosion. To put that into perspective, a speeding bullet from a rifle travels about 1 kilometer per second, and a 2.1 kiloton explosion is equivalent to the blast created by over 4 million pounds of TNT (the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equivalent to 15 kilotons). 

Our close pal the Moon isn’t as lucky as Earth when it comes to meteors. Since the Moon has no atmosphere, any object crossing its path will come to a fiery end as it crashes into the Moon’s surface. Meteors are striking the moon all the time, and we can see evidence of its violent past from all the impact craters that dot its surface.

Just a few days ago, two lunar meteor impacts were spotted and recorded by telescopes. What’s crazy is that these bright flashes of light which, were visible from Earth, were created by objects only a few centimeters across. Because of the lack of atmosphere, there’s nothing to slow them down before they crash land, which is why we can see the dramatic impacts from Earth.

While scientists aren’t particularly worried about any meteorites from the Perseid Meteor Shower striking Earth and wiping out life as we know it, the Comet Swift-Tuttle itself, which is responsible for the shower, is another story. At 26 km across, the comet the largest solar system object that makes repeat close passes to Earth, and has been described as “the single most dangerous object known to humanity.” Fortunately, its orbit is well-documented and scientists have assured us that while there will be several close passes, there is little to no threat of an impact over the next 2,000 years.