Perseid Meteor Shower 2020

This week sees the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. A meteor is also know as a shooting star and look like a star shooting quickly across the sky. They are caused when particles of matter from space strike the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth moves through space very fast (approximately 110,000 kph). As the Earth moves, it collides with bits of debris floating around in space. When it collides, the particles of matter heat up due to the friction of particle hitting the atmosphere. Try rubbing your hands together really fast and you’ll feel the heating effects of friction. Now imagine this with something moving at 110,000 Kph!

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Lyrid meteor as seen from the International space station. Credit: NASA

The Earth can hit a piece of matter at any time. They can be big and cause a very bright meteor (shooting star) or they can be small causing shooting stars that are not as bright. Sometimes the remains of a meteor can land on the ground! Most of the time though meteors are caused by small pieces of dust as small as a grain of sand. At certain times of year, Earth moves through areas of space that are more dusty than others. These are areas that comets and asteroids have passed through. When this happens there is a spike in meteor activity and this is called a meteor shower. Each August the Perseid meteor shower takes place. It is caused by dust left from a comet called comet Swift-Tuttle.

The meteor shower will be active from 17th July until 24th August the and will peak on the 12th August 2020. The problem is that the peak occurs between 14.00 and 17.00 (Irish time). Therefore, the best time to view it will be the nights of the 11th/12th August and 12th/13th August. You can try and catch some meteors on the nights either side of that date, but the greatest number will be on those nights. This year the Moon will be in the sky, brightening it and spoiling the view slightly. To get around this, move to a position that has the moon behind a tree or fence. Try to look in the opposite direction to the Moon. You don’t need any equipment to watch the meteor shower. Find somewhere dark, with a good view of the sky and make yourself comfortable. A reclining deck chair is ideal. Also make sure you are really well dressed for the cold. A sleeping bag can be great for keeping warm. You can also have some snacks and hot drinks like hot chocolate to hand. After that just relax and enjoy the show! You don’t need to look any specific direction as meteors can appear anywhere in the sky. Try to allow your eyes to adjust to the dark for about 20 mins. Your eyes become more sensitive in the dark so avoid looking at any lights or phone screens as this will destroy your night vision.

You can expect to see a maximum of 100 meteors per hour but that depends a lot on conditions and luck. It is unlikely that you will see that many this year given that the peak is in daylight and the Moon is up. It is still a really good opportunity as this is a really nice activity to do as a family if the weather is nice. It also helps that the weather is generally milder in August and more comfortable to sit out and observe the sky.

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