A full Moon is great for an evening stroll on the beach. Unfortunately, though, it’s not great for skywatching. Its glow overpowers most of the stars, leaving the sky looking murky and washed out. It also overpowers most of the “shooting stars” that streak across the sky. That’s a special problem the next few nights, because the Perseid meteor shower is at its peak.
The Perseids occur every August as Earth sweeps through the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet sheds grains of dust as it orbits the Sun. These bits of comet dust spread out along the comet’s path. When Earth plows through this trail of debris, some of the dust grains plunge into the atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. These grains vaporize as the glowing streaks of light known as meteors.
The Perseids should be at their best after midnight Tuesday night. The shower has faded in recent years as Swift-Tuttle has moved away from the Sun. Even so, it generally produces up to a couple of dozen meteors per hour.
Most of the meteors are relatively faint, though. And since the Moon is full today, it’ll still be quite bright on Tuesday night. And it’ll be in the sky during the shower’s peak hours, obliterating most of the meteors.
A few of the brighter meteors should still shine through, though. To see them, get away from the glow of city lights, which make the sky even murkier. Then scan the sky for bright meteors — the calling cards of a comet.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.