Look Up! The Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend

Kenneth Snyder, Flickr //  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Kenneth Snyder, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Look up tonight and you’ll see streaks of light headed your way. The annual Perseid meteor shower has arrived, and if the skies are clear and light pollution low, you are in for quite a treat: This is easily the best meteor shower of the year. Those who stay up late (or wake really early) are virtually guaranteed to see something.

FROM SLAYER OF MEDUSA TO COMETARY DUST 

The Perseids are the result of a debris field left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. This is a Halley-type comet that orbits the Sun every 133 years. (Its highly eccentric orbit takes it far beyond Pluto in the meantime.) As the comet travels across the solar system, it leaves behind a trail of dust and sand-sized particles that, over the course of centuries and millennia, becomes an increasingly dense field. When the Earth's orbital path crosses this debris, the speed and force of our planet colliding into the comet's phantom particles vaporizes them. A distinctive "shooting star" is the result of energy released by a speck of cometary dust colliding with the atmosphere of a 3.7-octillion-mile celestial object—that would be Earth—moving at 67,000 miles per hour.

The Perseids get their name from the constellation from which they seem to originate: Perseus. Don’t limit yourself to staring at the celestial slayer of Medusa, however. (Though bonus points if you can actually find it.) Meteors will appear across the night sky. The shower was first formally "discovered" in 1835 by astronomer Adolphe Quételet, though it has been observed for millennia. Meteors near the shower’s peak are sometimes called the "tears of St. Lawrence," coinciding with the feast day of St. Lawrence of Rome.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR FIREBALLS

If you are in an area of low light pollution—that is, any remote area away from a city—you will be able to see between 30 and 40 meteors per hour this weekend. Believe it or not, that makes this a bad year for the Perseids shower, down from a possible 150 per hour. Many meteors will be obscured by the big bright Moon still riding high after reaching a full phase earlier this week.

To best experience a meteor shower, NASA recommends you dress for the lower temperatures that come at night and give your eyes a good 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Take a blanket outside, lay back, and take in the sky. Be on the lookout for fireballs, which are particularly bright meteors. (You'll know one when you see it.)

The best time to see the Perseids shower is between midnight and dawn on Saturday. If you miss the Perseids early Saturday morning due to bad weather (or just sleeping in), you can try again at the same time each early morning well into next week. If being outside just isn’t your thing, but astronomy is, you can also view the meteor shower online at Slooh, beginning at 8:00 p.m. EDT on Saturday. The Perseids are the perfect warmup for the main event later this month: a total solar eclipse over North America on August 21.

First-Ever Map of Titan Reveals That Saturn’s Moon Is a Lot Like Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

If there's any life in this solar system outside Earth, we likely won't find it on Mars or even on another planet. Saturn's moon Titan is the place in our celestial neighborhood that's most similar to our own home, and it's where scientists think we have one of the best chances of discovering life. Now, as Nature reports, newly visualized data shows just how much Titan has in common with Earth.

Between 2004 and 2017, the NASA spacecraft Cassini performed more than 100 fly-bys of Saturn's moon. Titan is unique in that it's the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense, weather-forming atmosphere. This has made it hard to study from space, but by flying close to the surface, Cassini was able to capture the landscape in an unprecedented level of detail.

Map of Titan.
The first global geologic map of Titan.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

NASA's new map of Titan, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, reveals a varied world of mountains, valleys, plains, and sandy dunes that starkly contrast with the desolate wastelands we've seen on neighboring planets. It's also home to seas and lakes, making it the only place in the solar system other than Earth with known bodies of liquid. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

Even with its Earth-like geology and atmosphere, chances of finding life on Titan are still slim: Temperatures on the surface average around -300°F. If life does exist there, it's likely limited to microbes in the moon's craters and icy volcanoes.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. Until then, scientists have plenty of data recorded by Cassini to teach them more about how the moon formed and continues to change.

[h/t Nature]

A Rare Unicorn Meteor Outburst Could Be Visible for Less Than an Hour on Thursday

joegolby/iStock via Getty Images
joegolby/iStock via Getty Images

Your chances of seeing a unicorn this week are slim, but if you look up on Thursday night, you may see something that's almost as extraordinary. As Sky & Telescope reports, the upcoming Alpha Monocerotid meteor shower could produce a meteor outburst, which means there could be multiple shooting stars per second streaming from the unicorn constellation.

What is a unicorn meteor shower?

There's nothing particularly magical about the Alpha Monocerotids. They appear to originate near the star Procyon, which is next to the constellation Monoceros, the Greek name for unicorn.

The shower is known for occasionally packing a dense flurry of activity into a brief viewing window. The meteors appear between November 15 through the 25th of each year, and peak around the 22nd. Several times a century, the shower treats sky gazers to an "outburst" of shooting stars that lasts less than an hour.

Such an outburst is predicted for 2019. According to astronomers Peter Jenniskens and Esko Lyytinen, the Earth is on track to pass through a thick portion of the tail of the unknown comet that provides debris for the shower. The conditions are almost the same as they were in 1995, when the Alpha Monocerotids lit up the sky at a rate of 400 meteors per hour, which is approaching meteor storm levels. For that reason, the scientists are expecting shooting stars to appear in the same numbers this time around.

How to see the meteor outburst

Timing is crucial if you want to catch the Alpha Monocerotids, even more than with regular meteor showers. The outburst is expected to start at 11:15 p.m. EST and last just 15 to 40 minutes. Luckily, the sun will be fully set by then and the crescent moon won't rise until after 2 a.m, creating optimal viewing conditions for the eastern half of the country. The shooting stars are fast—traveling at 40 miles per second—and they come at random. Don't be surprised to wait a minute between meteors during some parts of the outburst and less than a second at others.

[h/t Sky & Telescope]

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