Perseid meteor shower to send icy fireballs shooting across the sky

Composite image with background image by Jorde Angjelovik, overlay by Niruti Stock/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Swift-Tuttle comet, Earth’s archaic relative, will make its moonlit debut on Tuesday, as fragments of the 4-billion-year-old, snowy dirtball streak across the skies during one of the most active meteor showers of the year.

Comet Swift–Tuttle | Photo courtesy of E. E. Barnard, European Space Agency, St. George News

The annual Perseid meteor shower is one of the most awaited meteor showers of the year, particularly for those living in the Northern Hemisphere, where the shower peaks during the early-morning hours from Aug. 11-13, competing only with the last quarter moon on Aug. 11, according to Earth Sky’s 2020 Meteor Shower Guide.

The Perseid meteor shower occurs every August, and is known as one of the most reliable showers, producing up to 70 meteors per hour at the shower’s peak, as bits and pieces from Comet Swift-Tuttle slam into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at more than 130,000 mph and then burn up 60 miles above Earth’s surface.

Typically, the Perseid meteors will take off in mid-to-late evening from northerly latitudes, and then increase after midnight until just before dawn.

While viewing times remain consistent year after year, the moonlight conditions change considerably from one year to the next. This year, the Perseids are best seen before midnight or before Earth’s lunar nightlight makes its appearance.

Should fortune smile upon Southern Utah,  the evening sky may serve as the backdrop for an “earthgrazer”, a colorful meteor that takes its time as it makes its horizontal trek across the heavens. Perseid earthgrazers are known to appear before midnight, when the radiant point of the shower is close to the horizon. This shower will continue for 10 days or so after the peak mornings, but starting Aug. 17, the competing light from the moon will disappear, making them easier to see.

Comet Swift-Tuttle is immense

From mid-northern latitudes, the meteors radiate from the constellation Perseus, the stars Capella and Aldebaran, and the Pleiades cluster light up the northeast sky in August | Photo courtesy of Till Credner,, St. George News

Discovered in 1862, Swift-Tuttle is considered a large comet, according to NASA. Its nucleus is roughly 16 miles across – more than twice the size of the object believed to have killed the dinosaurs – and moves twice as fast.

The comet also has an eccentric, oblong orbit that takes courses outside the orbit of Pluto when farthest from the sun and inside the Earth’s orbit when closest to the sun, a journey that takes 133 years.

Each time the comet passes through the inner solar system, the sun warms and softens up the ices inside, causing it to release fresh comet material in an orbital stream. If any meteor survives its fiery plunge to hit the ground intact, the remaining portion is called a meteorite.

Other than the Moon, this comet is considered the largest solar system object to repeatedly pass close to Earth, and its movements have been meticulously studied by scientists around the globe. Fortunately for all human-kind, each of Swift–Tuttle’s orbits for the next 2000 years have been intricately calculated, and for now, Earth is safe, according to

A close encounter is not expected until Sept. 15, 4479 – when Swift-Tuttle is expected to pass more than 90 times closer to Earth than the sun, which equates to about four times the distance between Earth and its moon.

Perseid meteors appear to come from the constellation Perseus, near the famous Double Cluster. Hence, the meteor shower is named after Perseus, known in Greek mythology as “the hero.” It is said that the Perseid shower commemorates the time when Zeus visited the mother of Perseus – in a shower of gold.

Here are Perseid meteor shower viewing tips:

  • An open sky is essential as these meteors streak across the sky in many different directions and in front of a number of constellations.
  • Try to face away from the moon when looking for meteors.
  • Getting as far away from city lights will provide the best view and the best time to watch the showers is between midnight and dawn.
  • Provide at least an hour to sky watch, as it can take the eyes up to 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night.
  • Put away the telescope or binoculars, as using either one reduces the amount of sky you can see at one time, and lowers the odds you’ll see a meteor.
  • Let your eyes relax and don’t look in any one specific spot. Relaxed eyes will quickly catch any movement in the sky and you’ll be able to spot more meteors.
  • Be sure to dress appropriately – wear clothing appropriate for cold overnight temperatures.
  • Bring something comfortable on which to sit or lie. A reclining chair or pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky.
  • Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light, as both destroy night vision.
  • To find out when the moon sets each of those mornings visit Sunrise Sunset Calendars. 

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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