Perseid meteor shower for 2015 peaks tonight

Tonight sees the peak of one of the year’s best displays of shooting stars – the Perseid meteor shower. And in the run-up to maximum, observers have already been reporting some fine meteors.

A Perseid meteor photographed in 2013 by the author. Image credit: Paul Sutherland

The meteors are produced as the Earth runs through a stream of dust that was left by a comet called Swift-Tuttle which appears in the sky every 133 years. Over time it has left a trail of debris along its orbit.

Providing your skies are clear skies, you can look forward to viewing many of the bright meteor streaks as the particles, no bigger than a grain of sand, “burn up”, or vaporize, in the upper atmosphere. They are called the Perseids because they appear to stream in from the direction of the constellation of Perseus. However, they can appear in any part of the sky. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California produced a video, below, but ignore the advice they give that you need to look north-west.

Perseid rates can be said to reach 100 meteors an hour at maximum. However, this is a figure given for an observer with ideal conditions. You will be lucky to see a few tens at most. Get away from street lights, relax in a comfortable chair and be patient for the best chance to see them.

We have produced a special two-part Skymania guide to observing meteors to help you see them.

The radiant from which the meteors appear to stream is low in the sky when darkness falls but climbs steadily in the sky through the night and highest rates of all are likely to be seen in the early hours of Friday morning. (Because Perseus is a far northern constellation, fewer meteors are seen in the southern hemisphere).

You may be distracted by the occasional starlike point moving more slowly against the heavens while you are carrying out your vigil. It is likely to be one of the many satellites that now orbit the Earth. They can be distinguished from aircraft because they are silent and tend to show a single steady white glow whereas planes have coloured flashing lights.

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