The 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower, which peaks late Thursday, August 11, and during the early morning hours of Friday, August 12, is expected to rank among the best of the annual Perseid displays in the last 100 years.
Although the peak night coincides with a moon that will be almost two-thirds full – and the brightness of the moon usually washes out all the but the brightest shooting stars – the moon does set about 1 o’clock in the morning Friday, and the skies will be pitch-black for at least three-hours after that, before dawn starts to lighten the skies.
But another big reason the Perseids could put on an epic show this year is that the position of Jupiter when the Perseids passed it (some months ago) was such that the huge planet’s field of gravity tweaked the normal path of the bits of comet debris that make up the Perseids. This “tweak” has resulted in sending the Perseids much closer to Earth this year. In fact, they will pass almost a million miles closer. (But not to worry, the Perseids will still be a good 160 million miles away from us.)
But every 12 years or so – that’s how long it takes Jupiter to do one orbit of the sun – the Perseids pass close enough to the big planet to get a significant tug of its gravity. And that’s when Earth usually experiences is a noticeably brighter and stronger Perseid display, that produces more than the usual complement of meteors.
Combine that with the dark skies after the moon sets this year, and sky-watchers are expecting a Perseid event of epic proportions.
Looking back over the last century, among the brightest and busiest Perseid displays were ones in the years 1921, 1945, 1968, 1980 and 2004 – years when Jupiter has had an influence on the Perseid orbit, and the moon was missing from the sky.
So, find a spot to watch the meteors which is well away from bright city lights, look toward the constellation Perseus, and enjoy the show!
(Editor’s Note: For a more technical explanation of the Perseids, maps, a livestream of the big event, and lots of amateur and professional photos check out space.com.)
August 8, 2016