The Perseid meteor shower is set to peak on the night of Saturday, August 12 and continue into the early hours of August 13, and conditions are shaping up for a stunning display, said Western meteor investigator Denis Vida. The new Moon, which occurs only three days after the peak, will help ensure a dark sky for optimal viewing on Saturday night.
A number of meteors can be seen in the days after the peak, and Western has launched a new meteor activity website (in partnership with NASA) that can help determine how good the show will be on any given night.
“The waning crescent Moon won’t rise in the northeast until after 3 a.m. on August 13 and will be only a minor source of sky brightness. This means there will be very little interference with observations,” said Vida, project lead of the Global Meteor Network and postdoctoral associate at Western Science.
Vida advised that if you’re outside the city or at the beach on Saturday, you can simply look up. Every few minutes, a bright meteor will streak across the sky. These meteors originate from a point in the constellation of Perseus. But these meteors aren’t related to legends of Greek mythology.
The Perseids, observed from Earth as shooting stars, are millimetre-sized dust particles, which enter the atmosphere at a hypersonic speed of 60 kilometres per second. (That’s about 30 times faster than the F-35 fighter jet). But despite their minuscule size, they have so much energy that when they collide with air molecules, electrons from the atmospheric atoms and those released from the meteoroid can be excited or even ‘ripped’ away entirely from their host atom and this makes the atoms glow.
“It only takes a brief moment after the meteoroid collides with the air molecules before the atoms emit light, which is when you can see a glowing trail in the sky,” said Vida.
“The prime time will be just before sunrise on August 12 or 13. If you’re observing in the evening, start after 10 p.m. and look towards the east or northeast. Finding the Big Dipper can be a guide to spotting some Perseids.”
Time-lapse of all meteor detections during a peak night of the Perseids by a camera in Belgium (Paul Roggemans image)
Star-gazers should be able to see a meteor about every two minutes at the start of the night. The meteor rate will climb steadily all night and should reach more than one Perseid a minute just before dawn.
For the best experience, Vida suggests allowing your eyes to adjust to the darkness for about 10 minutes and advises against using phones, or at least turning on a blue light filter to maintain night vision.
- Venture away from city lights for a clearer view.
- The best time? Just before sunrise on August 12 or 13. Evening viewers should start after 10 p.m., looking east or northwest.
- If you spot the Big Dipper, you’re in the right direction to catch the Perseids.
- Let your eyes adjust for 10 minutes in the dark. Keep phones away or use a blue light filter for night vision.
The Perseids are an amazing spectacle, but they are also potentially dangerous.
During an outburst in 1993, a Perseid meteor destroyed the Olympus-1, the largest civilian telecommunications satellite ever built at the time which had been launched four years earlier by the European Space Agency at a cost of $850 million.
“Even though dust particles that cause meteors are very sparse in space, given enough time and a large surface area, a satellite is bound to get hit,” said Vida. “And this time, it did.”
The impact formed a plasma cloud that shorted the spacecraft’s altitude control system. Its operators were able to stop it from spinning out of control, but they had depleted all its fuel and the satellite was put out of commission.
Vida is also a member of the Western Meteor Physics Group led by Peter Brown, Western’s Canada Research Chair in planetary small bodies. Vida says one of the most important aspects of the team’s research is long-term monitoring of meteor showers and building predictive models of meteor shower activity over time.
“By monitoring and modelling, we can give satellite operators a heads up that a meteor shower outburst is coming and that they should orient their spacecraft to avoid the direction where the meteors are travelling,” said Vida.
Western’s role in the Global Meteor Network
The Western-based Global Meteor Network (GMN), part of an initiative at Western’s Institute for Earth and Space Exploration, has proved crucial in monitoring meteor shower outbursts.
“GMN has more than 1,000 cameras in more than 40 countries around the world, including Malaysia, South Korea, New Zealand, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and most of Europe and North America. There’s no outburst we can miss anymore,” said Vida, who was on-call during a rare outburst in May 2022.
“Using the GMN data, we were able to provide critical information to NASA and satellite operators about this outburst. Fortunately, the activity was low at around 30 meteors per hour, while some people predicted thousands per hour which would have been much more dangerous for satellites,” said Vida.
Despite being one of the best observed and studied meteor showers, the Perseids can also still surprise us, says Vida. An unexpected outburst with an activity three times higher than the peak (up to 300 meteors an hour) happened on August 14, 2021.
“Only a handful of people were still watching, but we caught it on hundreds of GMN cameras. The outburst took everyone by surprise,” said Vida.
This year, for the first time, data from the GMN will be used to estimate in real time the actual activity of the shower. This information will be live on the web and will let everyone see just how strong the Perseids are on any given night.
Meteor monitoring comes to the classroom
Vida is also running a global outreach program facilitated by GMN.
“We are very passionate about giving back to the community, doing inclusive science and advancing equity around the world. We have developed a curriculum for high school students and are shipping meteor cameras to at least 10 schools in India, South Africa, Europe, the U.S. and New Zealand,” said Vida.
Teachers and STEM coordinators are getting ready to start the program in September, which will culminate in a global virtual conference where students will present their work to peers from across the world.
This level of international collaboration is possible through support from the Institute of Earth and Space Exploration and the associated interdisciplinarity is what helped the Global Meteor Network become a worldwide movement.
“We have members from all walks of life, professions and backgrounds. Diversity is our strength and everyone can contribute to the project in their own way,” said Vida. “We made everything open source and gave power to individuals to do whatever they want with the cameras.”
Vida says that they are now looking at expanding using meteor camera data to monitor light pollution, the impact of satellite megaconstellations on the night sky, and atmospheric effects of climate change.