Watch the sky

The Perseid meteor shower, one of the brightest of the year, will be visible in the night sky until about Aug. 22, said OMSI Director of Space Science Education Jim Todd. A dark spot around midnight, particularly between Aug. 9 and 13, will provide the best opportunity for viewing, he said.

Perseid meteor shower viewing best next week

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Director of Space Science Education Jim Todd called attention to the 2020 Perseid meteor shower in an email sent Wednesday. The Perseids, Todd explained, are one of the brighter meteor showers of the year, occurring between July 17 and Aug.24 each year, peaking between Aug. 9 and 13.

“They call it a shooting star, even though it isn’t a star,” Todd said. “They go in spurts, and then nothing. It’s kind of hit or miss,” he said, suggesting midnight as an optimum time. Todd told the News-Times the phenomena can be seen by the naked eye.

“You want to get a good viewing away from the city if possible, and then look to the north,” Todd said. It could be a little bit challenging because of the Coastal Mountain Range, he added. A better viewing would likely be in the valley and at higher elevations.

“But for the most part, you could just go out on the beach and look up. Keep your eyes open because they could appear overhead, behind you, on the side, just about anywhere — the really bright ones,” Todd related. It’s not critical to get out to the northeast, you just have more opportunity to see the fainter ones, he said.

“Made of tiny space debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus,” Todd explained. “This is because the direction, or radiant, from which the shower seems to come in the sky lies in the same direction as Perseus. The Perseids are widely sought after by astronomers and stargazers because most years at its peak, one can see 60 to 100 meteors in an hour from a dark place.”

Todd suggests the evening of Aug. 12 will provide the best chance of viewing the shower if it is clear. However, he noted the peak is “quite broad and so it is well worth observing on the nights before and after.”

Most meteors, Todd said, are seen looking about 50 degrees from the radiant, which lies between Perseus and Cassiopeia. “Start watching on the evening of the 12th as soon as it darkens and the radiant near the double cluster in Perseus clears the horizon after midnight,” Todd advised.

“Every year, Earth passes through debris paths left by comets as they hurtle past the sun. The results of these intersections are called meteor showers when the tiny bits of debris burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. We see them as bright streaks across the night sky and name them ‘shooting stars,’ intense streaks of light across the night sky,” Todd explained of the phenomena. “Caused by small bits of interplanetary rock and debris called meteoroids that crash and burn up high in Earth’s upper atmosphere, they travel at thousands of miles per hour and quickly ignite in the atmosphere’s friction, 30 to 80 miles above the ground. Most are destroyed during entry; the rare few that survive and hit the ground are known as meteorites.”

The Perseid meteor shower occurs when the Earth enters a debris path left by the comet Swift-Tuttle during its last trip past the sun in December 1992, Todd explained. “As comets orbit the sun, they shed an icy, dusty debris stream along the comet’s orbit. If Earth travels through this stream, we will see a meteor shower. Depending on where Earth and the stream meet, meteors appear to fall from a particular place in the sky known as the radiant. In the case of the Perseid meteor shower, the radiant takes place in the constellation Perseus.”

Be outside about the time the first stars appear, Todd advised.  “The radiant will be low in the northeast, but don’t concentrate just on that one area, but rather, let your gaze wander over a large portion of the sky. 

“As the hours pass the radiant rises higher and between about midnight and dawn the greatest number of meteors can be seen. Viewing through city lights and the moon will reduce their numbers considerably, but the brighter ones will show up nicely. An occasional fireball is possible,” he said. “It’s a beautiful sight.”


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