Perseid meteor shower to put on special show up north

By Marlene Even August 2, 2016
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An unusually high number of shooting stars expected for this year’s Perseid meteor shower: “the further north you are the better”.

THE PERSEID METEOR shower will be arriving in style this year, with an unusually high number of shooting stars. The annual meteor shower will appear until late this month, peaking on 12 and 13 August. 

Aussie stargazers will need to head north for the best chance to witness the event, with Darwin, Cape York, Cairns and the Tiwi Islands recommended vantage points.

However, this year the annual meteor shower will be mainly visible to night-sky enthusiasts in the Northern Hemisphere, who will be in for a spectacular treat with up to 150 shooting stars per hour – about double the normal rate of the Perseid meteor shower.

perseid meteor shower

The Perseid meteor shower photographed in 2013 at Mt Rainer in Washington, USA. (Image: Jeff Berkes Photography)

“A meteor shower occurs when the Earth, in its orbit around the Sun, crosses the path of a trail of debris left behind by a comet as it orbits the Sun,” explains Dr Padric McGee from the High-Energy Astrophysics Group at University of Adelaide, South Australia.

The debris – made up of ice and dust – that causes the Perseid meteor shower is released from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, vaporising as the meteor enters Earth’s atmosphere, which causes the bright light and trail, commonly known as ‘shooting stars’.

Jupiter to thank for more shooting stars

This year is special for the Perseid meteor shower, with a predicted increase in the number of meteors viewed per hour. Excitement is building on social media, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere, as stargazers anticipate an abundance of meteors.

Padric says this year’s increase in meteors is thought to be caused by Jupiter passing near the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle, with Jupiter’s gravity directing the added debris to head inwards towards Earth’s orbit. This phenomenon occurs at intervals which are multiples of 12 years – Jupiter’s orbital period – this does not mean it happens every 12 years.

Viewing Perseid

The Perseid meteor shower is named after the Perseus constellation, the part of the sky from which the meteors appear to arrive, known as a radiant point.   

The higher this radiant point is in an observer’s sky, the better it is for viewing the show – unfortunately this year in Australia it is fairly low compared to the Northern Hemisphere.

Padric says, “the further north you are in Australia, in general the better your view may be.”

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This meteor shower also coincides with a bright Moon, which will interfere with viewing fainter meteors, so take a look after moonset and before dawn. 

With a brighter Moon on 13 August that sets later, Padric says the nights of 11 and 12 August are the ones to go for.

To best view the meteor shower, gaze up half-way at the north-eastern portion of the sky and away from light pollution.

 “Just scan the sky, being aware that meteors may appear at various elevations above the horizon. Make sure you’re comfortable and warm, and allow your eyes to adapt to the dark,” says Padric.

While the Northern Hemisphere has the best view for this month’s Perseid meteor shower, July was a great month for Aussie stargazers who were treated to the Delta Aquarid meteor show, and five planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – appearing bright in our sky from late July through to August.

The next visually worthwhile meteor showers will be the Southern Taurids during October and November.