The biggest and best display of shooting stars this year is coming soon.
Each year, the Perseid meteor shower arrives sometime between July 17 and August 24.
The cosmic spectacle, which happens when the Earth ploughs through debris trailing behind the Swift-Tuttle comet, has always been the most popular of the annual meteor showers because about 80 to 100 shooting stars can be seen every hour.
In some years, the display is much more intense. In these ‘swarm years’ it’s possible to see what are called meteor outbursts or meteor storms with thousands of shooting stars an hour.
The meteors travel at about 37 miles a second and appear to come from the direction of the constellation Perseus, hence their name.
They burn up at an altitude of 40 to 60 miles above the Earth’s surface.
When is the Perseid meteor shower 2018?
For 2018, the Perseids are expected to be visible each night from Monday, July 23, to Monday, August 20.
They are set to peak on the night of Sunday, August 12 into Monday, August 13. The previous night (August 11-12) is also going to be spectacular, say NASA experts.
The best sightings are usually in the early hours before dawn.
In 2016 they were at their most spectacular since 2009 because Jupiter’s gravity pulled the comet’s debris closer to Earth and there was a meteor storm with as many as 200 per hour.
What are the Perseids?
The Perseids are a meteor shower that appear to radiate outwards from the constellation Perseus.
Catholics call the phenomenon The Tears of St Lawrence. The saint was roasted to death over hot coals in 258 AD for giving away the Church’s treasures to the poor and it’s said the shooting stars are the sparks from that fire falling back to Earth.
American singer John Denver saw the Perseids on a family camping trip in Colorado and wrote about them in his hit Rocky Mountain High, when he sang: “I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky.”
Greek astronomer Ptolemy said that when Zeus and the other gods occasionally peered down at the Earth, they sometimes knocked a star out of place and caused it to fall.
This is said to be the origin of making a wish when you see a shooting star. It’s a great time to do it because the gods are looking down and paying attention.
In other cultures, shooting stars have also been thought to be fallen angels, the tears of angels, souls on the way to the afterlife, or omens of good luck, bad luck, sickness or death.
These meteors come from the debris in the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet, which orbits the sun once every 133 years.
When the Earth passes through the tail of the comet, some of the rock and dust is knocked out of place and falls towards us, burning up in the atmosphere as so-called shooting stars.
They’re not actually stars, of course, but they appear similar because of the light emitted as they hit the Earth’s atmosphere.
Most of them are only about the size of a grain of sand. None of them ever reach the ground.
How to see the Perseids
Unlike 2017, bright moonlight won’t get in the way of this year’s display.
There is a new moon on Saturday, August 11, meaning dark skies that night and on the next few nights. There will be only the faintest sliver of a crescent on August 12 and 13, so visibility won’t be obscured by any glow from the moon. That’s great news for stargazers.
To prevent any other glare getting in the way, it’s best to escape the light pollution of urban areas.
To guarantee a good view of the Perseid meteor shower, it’s best to find an open space with a clear view of the sky that isn’t obscured by trees or tall buildings.
Rather than just standing out in the back garden, go somewhere where the sky is as dark as possible.
Birmingham is very well placed for good views of the celestial spectacle because it has more than 8,000 acres of parks and open spaces, more than any other European city.
But it also has more trees than Paris, so there is a possibility your view will be obscured by lush greenery if you don’t pick the right spot.
No special equipment is needed, as the meteors will be visible with the naked eye. But allow 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.
Remember to be patient – bring a reclining chair or a blanket so you can lie back and look up without getting a stiff neck.
As they radiate mainly from Perseus, a constellation in the northern part of the sky, the meteors are mostly seen in the Northern Hemisphere. But you could spot them anywhere across the sky.
Some can be seen whizzing past before midnight but they are more visible in the hours before dawn.
A few – known as Earth-grazers – don’t plunge into the atmosphere but skim across it like a pebble across the surface of a pond. They enter the atmosphere briefly, causing long bright trails or fireballs before leaving again to fly off into space.
Those arriving later, between dawn and noon, normally can’t be seen because of the glare of daylight.
A spokesman for the National Space Centre at Leicester said: “The Perseids are usually one of the best. If people find that at around midnight they can see some sky and stars then it might be worth a look. No special equipment is needed – just sit back and enjoy.”
How to take photos of the Perseids
1. Go to a place where the skies are dark, away from the light pollution of urban areas.
2. Set up a DSLR camera on a tripod – some recommend a wide-angle lens which covers a large area of the night sky and this is probably the best option for photographing the current ‘outburst’ of meteors.
Other experts suggest focusing on a smaller area of sky to get a nice close-up shot of a meteor that happens to be whizzing past but this reduces your chances of capturing anything.
3. Leave the camera in the same position so you can later create a time-lapse video as well.
Aim it somewhere between the NW and NE. But Don’t point it directly at the point where the meteors are expected to radiate from or they’ll be seen head-on – try to look to the side of that so you can see the trails of the shooting stars.
4. Set the focus to make distant objects as sharp as possible. Some recommend turning the focus to infinity (to its fullest setting on the wheel), others say it’s better to set the focus manually by looking at a bright star in the sky.
5. Pick the lowest f-number for the lens so it opens wide and lets in lots of light. You need to make those meteors show up as much as possible on your pictures. An ISO setting around half or a quarter of the top value is a good option.
6. Select an exposure time of 30 seconds and go for continuous shooting mode so the camera keeps taking lots of pictures when you press the button. A shutter release cable is essential for this type of photography.
7. Try the settings out on the night sky and check the image on the back of your camera to see if any adjustments are needed.
8. Have extra storage cards and spare camera batteries with you, just in case.
So will Earth ever collide with the comet the Perseids come from?
Swift-Tuttle – the comet whose trail of debris creates the Perseids – was described as the biggest threat known to humanity by American astronomer Gerrit Verschuur in his 1997 book Impact! The Threat of Comets & Asteroids.
If it collided with Earth, its impact would release about 27 times more energy than the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. That asteroid was six miles (10km) across, while the Swift-Tuttle comet is 16 miles (26km) across.
But thankfully the comet has a stable orbit around the sun and won’t be any threat for at least the next 2,000 years or so.
It will have a close encounter with Earth in September 4479, but even then it’s been calculated there is only a 0.0001 per cent probability of it hitting our planet. We won’t be here then anyway, so no need to worry.
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