Monday, October 15 , 2018, 10:59 pm | Fair 57º


Dennis Mammana: With Perseid Meteor Shower, Sky Appears to be Falling

Head outdoors to view the Perseids meteor shower. Click to view larger
Head outdoors to view the Perseids meteor shower. ( illustration)

Few sights are as thrilling as the fiery spectacle known as a falling star, also called a shooting star or meteor. Astronomers cannot predict exactly when or where a meteor will appear, but sky watchers head far from the city lights during mid-August each year to view one of the year’s most reliable displays: the Perseid meteor shower.

This year will be no exception. The shower’s peak will occur on the night of Thursday, Aug. 11, and the pre-dawn hours of Friday, Aug. 12, but you will see early meteors from this shower throughout the weekend.

Often a bright meteor will start my phone ringing, as people are stunned by the sight. But they are not all that uncommon.

Our region of space is littered with dusty particles called “meteoroids,” most no larger than a grain of sand. As one slams into our upper atmosphere at more than 100,000 mph, it disintegrates in a quick, but dramatic burst of light. On a clear, dark night an observer can typically see three or four random (or “sporadic”) meteors every hour, falling from various directions.

There are times when our odds of seeing meteors improve, and this week will be one of them. That’s because our planet will be carrying us on our annual journey through the swarm of dusty debris expelled by the slowly disintegrating Comet Swift-Tuttle.

After watching for a while, you’ll notice that these meteors appear to fall all around the sky. But if you trace their paths backward you’ll discover that most actually appear to radiate from one location in the sky. This point is the shower’s radiant. It is often named for the constellation in which it lies.

This is why the August shower is known as the Perseids; its radiant lies in the direction of the constellation Perseus. Any meteors that don’t appear to radiate from this direction are called sporadic meteors, and they are random flecks of dust, not part of the Swift-Tuttle swarm.

Why is it that astronomers always suggest you will see more meteors before dawn? It’s quite simple, really. The phenomenon is similar to a car encountering a swarm of bugs on the highway. The front windows receive the brunt of the impact, while the side and back windows hardly receive any.

The same is true as the Earth whirls through space and plows into this cloud of dusty debris: Our best view of the shower comes when we’re peering out of Earth’s front window, and that comes just before dawn. This is especially true this year, since a bright moon sets in the west after midnight and leaves the pre-dawn sky dark for meteor watching.

For the best view, many people camp in the mountains, desert or countryside, or even on the side of rural roads away from traffic.

No equipment is required, either. All you need to enjoy the sky show is your eyes, although binoculars might be helpful to check out long smoke trails left behind by any exploding fireballs.

Be sure to take a lawn chair or sleeping bag and a blanket or hot chocolate to keep warm, and gaze skyward.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >

Meet Your Realtor Sponsored by Village Properties

Photo of Dianne and Brianna Johnson
Dianne and Brianna Johnson
"We are committed to making our clients feel special by providing the concierge level service they deserve."

Full Profile >