Every year, people around the world look forward to the end of summer star show otherwise known as the Perseid Meteor Showers. That leads one to pose the question: Just what is a Perseid Meteor? In fact, there is no meteor, rather, the annual show of falling stars is, in fact, star dust.
Just before dawn in late August, the celestial light show, known as the Perseid Meteor Shower, commences. It continues throughout the month, with the best viewing days typically found mid-month. (Check the website StarDate.com for prime meteor showers throughout the year, including the Perseids.) For those in the more northerly reaches of the hemisphere (that is, Canada), the event typically comes at the end of July, sooner than for fans in Europe and the United States.
Star dust, not a meteor
While the Perseid Meteor Shower is not the result of a meteor named Perseid (the name, in fact, stems from its celestial location where the constellation Perseus appears), it is the lingering dust from a comet known as Swift-Tuttle. Each year, the Earth travels through the dust and debris remains of the Swift-Tuttle, what has been compared with mere grains of sand in size, to create the brilliant light show we know as “falling stars.”
Despite its less than stellar (pun intended) origins, that makes the result no less impressive to astronomy fans around the globe. Prime viewing is easy to enjoy with the naked eye, a phenomenon not often the case with events so far from our planet.
How to enjoy the Perseid Meteor Shower
Any clear viewing of the Perseid Meteor Shower (or other astronomical sights) is best done as far from human habitation as possible. Manmade light sources, as so commonly found in urban areas, prevent the human eye from distinguishing events is space clearly. The darker the surroundings, the better the viewing. This has led many to explore the night skies from prime rural areas, such as the desert Southwest in the United States, where guided trips and tours for celestial viewing are popular.
Also popular are locations featuring telescopes, even in more urban locations, such as Los Angeles, where the Griffith Observatory on Mount Hollywood provides enhanced observation of this and other events.
Because no real tool (other than one’s eyes) are needed, however, the time of the Perseid Showers is often a celebratory event, a gathering of amateurs both young and old, in numerous locations across the country. Some lawn chairs or blankets for laying on the ground to watch the falling stars are all that is truly needed to enjoy the show in the skies.
What to expect from the Perseid Meteor event
For those who like to bone up on what to expect before next year’s event, the website Space.com can provide many photographic and video examples of previous Perseid Meteor Showers. During the peak event, stars appear to fall at a rate of some 60 to 100 per hour. Miss one? There’ll be another along in a minute.
For those who wish to capture the event photographically, the most important tool is a tripod (to steady the shot) and a lot of patience. It’s tricky to capture a falling star, and it’s best to just snap away and have faith one will be captured in a photo. It also helps to leave the shutter open for several minutes.
Whether the desire is simply to see a falling star or to capture the phenomenon for posterity, the Perseid Meteor Shower (aka comet dust) provides an indelible memory. It’s a soul-stirring event that requires only the absence of light to make the heavens come alive.