Heath Harrison: Perseids should be strong tonight, if weather allows

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 12, 2023

Each August, the Perseid meteor shower draws people outdoors, in hopes of catching a display of shooting stars as summer winds down.

Some years it is a grand sight, while, in others, like last year, the light of the moon can blot out any chances of seeing them.

This year, however, conditions, astronomically, look ideal for observation, with the moon limited to a thin waning crescent in the early hours of the morning.

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Every 133 years, the comet Swift-Tuttle completes its orbit around the sun and, as it does, it ejects a trail of particles, some of which fall into earth’s orbit.

A particularly strong stream in 1865 added to the collection that has amassed over thousands of years.

When the earth crosses into this cloud of particles, they burn up in the atmosphere, creating the annual meteor shower, which begins in mid-July.

The peak of this year’s shower is set for tonight and, if you are away from city lights, look toward the region of the sky that contains the constellation Perseus, for your best chance of spotting meteors.

This would be the northeast in the early part of the night and more toward the east as night progresses.

The shower will take place all night, but will become stronger and more visible as Perseus climbs higher into the sky in the early morning hours.

If conditions are clear and free of city lights, one can possibly spot up to 100 meteors an hour.

In addition to the meteor shower, the weekend also will provide a great view of the Milky Way.

The band of stars, spanning from north to south, will be in the eastern sky after sunset and will rise to overhead around midnight

Some of the densest parts of the Milky Way are on display in the summer months and a good pair of binoculars will reveal amazing views as it nears overhead.

I have been asked a few times, “How are we looking at the Milky Way from here – isn’t the Earth in it?”

This is true. The earth, solar system and all of the stars we see in the night sky are part of the Milky Way galaxy. However, the individual stars that we see in our sky make up only the local regions of the galaxy, which are nearest to the solar system, as far as cosmic distances go.

The band we see in the sky that we call the Milky Way is looking into the distant part of the galaxy and directly into its disk, where the stars are packed most densely.

In fact, if one looks to the part of the Milky Way directly south, on the horizon around midnight, they are viewing the galactic center, located in the constellation of Sagittarius, the archer. This is the part of the galaxy that is home to the supermassive black hole, the gravity of which holds the galaxy together. 

So, between the Perseids and the Milky Way, there is plenty to see this weekend. Astronomical conditions are about as good as they come, and could provide the best view of the meteor shower in decades.

But the situation down here on Earth is another story. While today is supposed to start off clear, before going partly cloudy, scattered thunderstorms are forecast throughout Saturday and into the night.

So, depending on where you are, it could be hit or miss.

But, if the weather holds up, get out and take in the stellar show.

Heath Harrison is The Ironton Tribune’s community editor and has been fascinated by the night sky since reading H.A. Rey’s “Find the Constellations” as a six year old.