What you need to know to see this weekend’s big meteor shower

photo by: Associated Press

A Perseid meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid meteor shower on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 in Vinton, Calif. (AP Photo/Kevin Clifford)

The moon won’t be making an appearance this weekend, but about 50 meteors per hour will light up the sky, offering stargazers a dazzling show between midnight and dawn.

The 2018 Perseid meteor shower, a popular summer stargazing event, should be more vibrant than in other years. However, it’s important to set an alarm, because the meteor shower occurs while most people are sleeping.

Because the moon is in a new phase, the night sky will be darker, said Bruce Twarog, a University of Kansas professor with the department of physics and astronomy.

Not only will the night sky be dark, it will also be clear, according to Matt Walters, a meteorologist with Topeka’s National Weather Service.

“There won’t be much cloud cover,” Walters said.

That means the weekend should be favorable for stargazing.

People love the Perseid meteor shower because it’s something they can view without any equipment, Twarog said. In fact, he said, a telescope is a waste of time because the meteors fly by so fast.

Twarog describes the Perseid meteor shower as “spectacular,” but he doesn’t get too excited about the event.

“If you have seen a few of them, you have seen them all,” he said.

After all, they come every year. However, this year, with a dark, clear sky, it’s possible to see an amazing light show.

The ultimate cause of the annual meteor shower is a comet — basically a large ball of frozen ice and rock that travels around the sun.

“Comets are spectacular and beautiful and take months to go across the sky, but every time they go near the sun they are melted down a little bit,” Twarog said.

While the comet may only come back every 125 years, the debris that the comet leaves behind each time it comes near the sun fills the entire loop of the orbit of the comet, Twarog explained.

“So every year when the Earth orbits the sun and passes through that debris field, you get this stream of particles that pass into the atmosphere and gives you this meteor shower,” Twarog said.

How fiery and bright the show might be depends on how the dust and particles are distributed along the orbit. Astronomers have been studying the comet that causes the Perseid meteor shower for years, making it possible to predict how much debris will be in the part of the comet’s orbital path that the Earth passes through.

This weekend, Twarog is anticipating slightly more debris than average.

“Most of the time when you get the highest fields is when the comet itself is actually close to the sun. When the sun is close to the comet and the Earth is passing through the orbit, you get a much bigger result,” Twarog said.

Because Kansas is flat with a large horizon, the view is especially spectacular.

People can view the meteors streaming across the sky anywhere away from downtown Lawrence. He suggests grabbing a lawn chair and heading to Clinton Lake or anywhere a few miles outside of town where the sky is dark.

Twarog warns that the meteors cross the sky fairly quickly. That’s why some people call them shooting stars, but they have nothing to do with stars.

“They are basically rocks,” he said.

The meteor shower will grow more spectacular through the weekend, with the top performance between midnight and dawn Sunday and Monday.

While this weekend is the peak, Twarog predicts the showers will last through Aug. 24.

If people know where Cassiopeia — a W-shaped constellation in the northeastern part of the sky — is located, they can find the Perseid meteors just below it beginning about 11 p.m. Saturday night. If stargazers miss the show on Saturday, they also can look for it again beginning at about 11 p.m. on Sunday night.

While stars and star clusters are Twarog’s specialty, he said he appreciates how the meteor showers light up the summer sky and anyone can appreciate the celestial wonder.

“It’s just beautiful,” Twarog said.


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