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Let’s Discover: The Summer’s Best Meteor Shower


This week, don’t miss the summer’s most underrated blockbuster event. Admission is free, and the front row could be as close as your own backyard.

The Perseid meteor shower is one of our most reliably flashy astronomical events, and this year promises to be a stunner.

meteorA Perseid meteor streaks over the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile (ESO/S. Guisard)

Every year on its journey around the sun, the Earth passes through the trail of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet’s last near-Earth visit was 1992, and it won’t be back again until the year 2124. But luckily, the comet has left a spectacular show for us to remember it by.

The Perseids light up our skies each year between July 17 and August 24, and peak this week, between August 9 and 13, as Earth passes through the densest sections of the comet’s debris trail.

This year, the peak falls near August 14th’s new moon. Without the moon’s brightness to compete with, we should see even more meteors than usual. Read on for meteor viewing tips and trivia!

What are meteors?
Meteors are small grains of rock or specks of dust left behind by comets or asteroids that collide with our atmosphere. Before entering our atmosphere they’re called meteoroids, and if they survive and fall to Earth, they’re called meteorites.

Meteors are sometimes called shooting stars, though they have nothing in common with actual stars. Stars like our Sun are gargantuan, whereas Perseid meteors are 0.1 to 1 millimetre in diameter. These specks, however, are traveling at speeds up to 60 kilometres per second. When they zip into Earth’s atmosphere they burn up, creating streaks of light thousands of times longer than their original size.

When is the best time to look for meteors?
Any clear night, after dark and before dawn. During the Perseids, meteors crash into our atmosphere 24 hours a day. But we only notice them at night, after the Sun’s bright light fades to let stars and meteors shine through.

Where is the best place to go meteor watching?
You should be able to see meteors in any dark place where you can see the stars. A park or field away from city lights will be your best bet. Light pollution will make it harder to see weaker meteors.

Nova Scotia has an official Dark Sky Preserve, completely free of artificial light, in Kejimkujik National Park. If you can’t make it to Keji, check the clear sky forecast for Halifax, or other parts of Nova Scotia, to find the best viewing days and times for your area.

Where in the sky should I look?
Lay back, and look up. Relax your eyes, take in as much of the sky in your view as possible, and be prepared to be patient. The meteors will appear to be coming from the constellation Perseus, from which the Perseids get their name. But meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, and those around Perseus will have shorter trains. It’s best to relax and look up, without focusing on any one object in the sky.

perseusThe constellation Perseus, where Perseid meteors will appear to come from.This is called the meteor shower’s “radiant.” (Photo: Till Credner)

Should I worry about dodging falling meteorites?
Nope. Perseid meteors are too small to make it through our atmosphere, burning out some 80 kilometres above us after reaching several 1000 degrees Celsius That’s a hot shower!

If you don’t get the chance to head outdoors this week to see the show, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Drop into the Discovery Centre on August 24th when we’ll feature an indoor presentation along with interpretation of The Perseids. It’s a show you don’t want to miss!

For more great things to discover – visit the Discovery Centre on Barrington Street in Halifax, check out their website  or join them on facebook.

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