This summer, you might have heard news of the “billionaire space race,” as Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk use their obscene wealth to privatize extra-planetary travel. If you’re a lover of space and not a billionaire, good news: the Perseid Meteor Shower is peaking next week, and you can watch it here on Earth without needing to blow $841 million.
Full disclosure: I myself am not a lover of space. In fact, I really hate it. The concept of living on a planet surrounded on all sides by a cold, airless, infinite Void evokes a sense of dread in me. But my partner loves space and so, today, I’d like to present to you the big space event of the year that doesn’t require you to have a bank vault like Scrooge McDuck.
The Perseid meteor shower (often simply called “The Perseids”) is considered to be one of the best meteor showers of the year, according to NASA. Named for the constellation Perseus, this meteor shower is active in 2021 from mid-July to mid-August, but it “peaks” on August 11th and 12th. In the pre-dawn hours, you can expect to see up to 100 meteors or “shooting stars” an hour, and there’s a chance of seeing “fireballs” as well, which are meteor streaks that last longer and shine brighter than regular meteors.
The origin of the Perseids is a comet called 109P/Swift-Tuttle (or sometimes simply “Swift/Tuttle”). Swift/Tuttle is a periodic “Halley-type” comet that enters the inner solar system every 122 years. It last visited us in 1992 and we should be able to see it again in 2126. The meteor shower is the debris from the comet’s tail falling to earth and being vaporized in the atmosphere, whereas the comet itself appears in the sky as a small, bright “star.”
Although its year of discovery is usually cited as 1862, historical records indicate that the comet was observed and recorded in 69. B.C. and 188 A.D., in China.
The Swift/Tuttle comet, despite being less famous than Halley’s comet, is actually the largest “near-Earth object” to cross Earth’s orbit, and in the past, astronomers have raised the question as to whether or not it poses a threat to us. (Half of its Wikipedia article is titled “Threat to Earth.”) Happily, astronomers calculate that it won’t hit us, which is great, because it’s twice as big as the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, and the energy released upon impact would be about 27 times greater than that of the Chicxulub impactor. (Side note: why isn’t there a thrash band called the Chicxulub Impactors yet?)
But we’re a safe, observable distance from Swift/Tuttle, so the only real consequence to Swift/Tuttle being so close to Earth is a reliable summer meteor shower. The New Moon occurs on August 8th, so at the peak of the Perseids this year, there will only be a thin crescent of moon, leaving the night dark and perfect for viewing. The Perseids will last through August 25th.
One more social/historical note of interest about the Perseids: the feast day of St. Lawrence is August 10th, and he was martyred by being burned alive; the fireballs of the Perseids are, according to Mediterranean folk legend, the sparks from the fire that killed St. Lawrence, and the Perseids themselves have been called the “tears of St. Lawrence.”
NPR collected a few great resources for your viewing pleasure, including the following links to NASA’s meteor calculator and the International Dark Sky Association’s dark sky finder to find a viewing spot with minimal light pollution.
The Virtual Telescope Project will host a livestreamed Perseids viewing session from Europe on August 10th at 5 p.m., citing “perfect” sky conditions. But after a year of Zoom calls, maybe it’s worth finding the time to go outside and turn your gaze to the stars.