From 11 to 13 August this year, we will be lucky enough to view a cosmic firework display. The Perseid meteor shower is an annual event, and occurs when Earth passes through the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle.
As Swift-Tuttle raced toward the Sun to make its closest approach (perihelion) in 1992, it left in its wake a stream of debris, and on the intersection of orbits between the comet and Earth each year these tiny dust particles enter the atmosphere as meteoroids travelling at breakneck speeds. The interaction between these particles and air molecules causes friction and a rise in temperature until CRACK they fracture…and we see beautiful lights streaking across the sky as meteors or shooting stars.
Image credit: Fred Bruenjes
We talk a lot about light pollution and street lights being a cause of this, and actually our Moon is too! This can cause problems for astronomers wanting to observe distant galaxies or nebulae, and also when we want to watch meteors. However, this year the Perseids fall at the time of the New Moon which means we will be able to see the shooting stars in all of their glory.
It is also possible, using radio astronomy, to listen to the meteoroids as they enter the atmosphere and track the rate, which is expected to be 50-100 meteors per hour this year. You can use this website to listen in for free and count the number of ‘ping!’ sounds you hear per hour.
Jasmin Evans is a physics student at the University of Central Lancashire, currently interning with the Ogden Trust doing Science Communication and Outreach.
Want to find out more about space? Borrow our Touch to See book Ka-Boom from our free postal library.