Perseid Meteor Shower

The Perseid meteor shower is peaking. In the above 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. 

Perseid meteor showers peaking while Jupiter, Saturn on display

OSWEGO — Meteor showers peaking overnight Wednesday into Thursday will highlight a trio of skygazing events this month, which also include some of the best views of two of the solar system’s outermost planets.

The annual Perseid meteor shower is hitting its peak this week, bringing shooting stars across the northern hemisphere in the late evening and early morning hours through the end of the week. Saturn and Jupiter — the two largest planets in the solar system — are also on brilliant display in the night sky, with each near their opposition to Earth.

Dr. John Zielinski, a professor in SUNY Oswego’s physics department focusing on astronomy, said the peak of the Perseid meteor shower is expected to occur midday Thursday, but the meteor shower is often visible for up to a week after the peak. Overnight Wednesday into Thursday is expected to be the highest frequency of meteors, but Thursday night into Friday morning could be equally fruitful. 

“It can intensify greatly right at the peak,” Zielinski said, noting the most intense moments are likely to be from late night Aug. 11 to early morning Aug. 13. The annual meteor shower provides a significant show in the night sky for days leading up to and following the peak.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, people in the U.S. expect to see around 40 Perseid meteors in the hour just before dawn on the peak nights. That equates to one every couple of minutes for those with a clear view of the night sky. 

Zielinski said those seeking to catch a glimpse of the atmospheric show can look northeast in the night sky around 10 p.m., with meteors likely to be coming from just above the horizon. Zielinski said between midnight and 1 a.m. as the show moves higher above the horizon viewers would likely see more meteors.

“As the night goes on, the point they seem to come from (called the radiant) gets higher and higher and higher,” Zielinski said. “Right around dawn, just before it starts to get light out, it’s nearly right overhead… and that’s because the Earth is turning.”

The Perseid meteor shower is the result of the Earth moving through the ancient path of a comet, which has left rock and debris along its orbit that hit the atmosphere and create the brilliant display.

“Once a year, the Earth plows into it and all this debris hits the atmosphere and it produces meteors,” Zielinski said. “But many of the meteors and the shooting stars that we’re seeing are just grains of sand.”

No special equipment is needed to watch the Perseids, but sky watchers recommend finding a wide-open viewing area with little light pollution. Experts say in a dark sky, viewers may be able to see up to 60 meteors per hour near the peak.

Viewers can look for the constellation Cassiopeia, which appears as a prominent W shape in the sky — the radiant is just below. The constellation Perseus, for which the meteor shower is named, is slightly more difficult to locate, Zielinksi said, noting anyone interested can visit https://stellarium-web.org/ to access a map of the night sky specific to their location.

The Perseids are perhaps the most brilliant show in August but interested sky watchers can also enjoy two planets at their brightest.

Saturn is currently amid its best and brightest show of the year, with the ringed planet at opposition to Earth — meaning the planet is in alignment with our planet and the Sun. Earth is sitting directly between the Sun and Saturn in a straight line.

“This is the time in the orbits of the Earth and Saturn when the distance between is closest,” Zielinksi said. “It’s also directly illuminated by the sun. The rays of the sun hit Saturn and bounce right back to Earth. Saturn is opposite the Sun, which means it will be highest in the sky at midnight and twilight won’t interfere.”

Looking south a few hours after sunset, Saturn will appear in the south-southeast and moving westward throughout the night. Zielinski said with the ringed planet hitting its highest point in the sky around 1 a.m., it appears in “a nice, dark sky high above the horizon.”

Zielinski said though Saturn hit its technical opposition last week, it would appear similarly brilliant through the end of August. He noted Saturn “crawls” across the sky slowly, completing just three circuits in an average human lifetime.

Nearby Saturn in the night sky is Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, which is also set to be in opposition to Earth later this month on Aug. 19 and 20. Jupiter, one of the brightest objects in the night sky, is highly visible in the south-southeast shortly after nightfall and appears as the brighter object to the east of Saturn in the south-southeast night sky.

Next week when Jupiter hits opposition, the planet will appear directly south at 1 a.m. on Aug. 19 and 20.

“The Earth moves much faster than Jupiter and Saturn so the Earth has now moved along counter clockwise and now the straight line is between the Sun, Earth and Jupiter,” Zielinski said of the opposition of Jupiter.

Wildfires in western North America are contributing another phenomenon in the sky, and one that doesn’t require a late night or early morning to enjoy. Wildfires, likely from western Canada, have put dust, ash and particle in the atmosphere that have led the rising and setting sun and moon to look orange or red on occasion.

“The smoke particles scatter all the other colors, except red gets through,” Zielinski said. “That’s why the moon looks orange and also why a sunset looks red.”

Zielinski noted the reddish hue is more likely to occur near the horizon, as viewers are looking through nearly four times the amount of atmosphere and far more scattering of light is taking place.

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