As mid-summer readily approaches, so do the Delta Aquarid and Perseid meteor showers. When comets come closer to the sun in their orbits, the heat starts to break apart their icy composition. It follows that once Earth revolves to the point where the comet passed, there will be pieces of debris that will collide with the planet. These pieces of debris burn up in our atmosphere, traveling at over 130,000 miles per hour, and cause streaks of lights that we can see from right outside our houses. Presently, we are coming out of the Delta Aquarid meteor shower which peaked around July 29th, but they can still be seen today. The more famous shower though, the Perseid meteor shower, will be approaching with its peak on the night of August 11th. The reason for their name is answered from the direction they appear to come from in the sky. These meteors, from the comet Swift Tuttle, will appear to come from the constellation Perseus. Likewise for the Delta Aquarids, they should all be able to be traced back to Aquarius. The moon might have some interference this year as it will be setting at over a quarter (waning gibbous) around midnight on August 12th, but the meteors will still be able to be seen. If you are looking for a moonless, dark night to see these meteors, then August 2nd will be the night for you.
Additionally, keep in mind that 2016 will be one of the best years to see the Perseids. Jupiter and the other heavenly bodies are constantly pulling on objects changing their orbits. This year, a large portion of meteors are being pushed into Earth’s orbit. We could see up to 200 meteors an hour during the outburst! To optimize this experience, I suggest waiting until after midnight to early morning to view them. This way the bright moon will have set and the radiant point of Perseus will have time to rise higher into the north-east sky. The higher the constellation, the greater the chance of seeing more meteors. Don’t miss seeing a great show in the sky, and start 15 minutes early to help your eyes adjust to the dark.
Fortunately for us, we can enjoy this shower of light in our blankets in our backyard, but others have a more important role. NASA, for example, scans the solar system for meteoroids that could pose a threat to Earth. Thousands of grain-size dust and rock are burned up in our atmosphere every day. Even meteors up to 10 feet are usually burned up, but what about the bigger ones? Barringer Crater, in Arizona for example, was created from a 60-meter meteor that blasted a crater 4,000 feet wide. Such impacts like this that are equivalent to millions of tons of TNT are very rare though and only occur every 1,000 years or so. Since no human has been killed in the past 1,000 years, there is no need to worry about meteorite crashes in the near future.