Tracking the cosmic fireworks

The Perseids meteor shower took place over the weekend and will culminate tonight in a spectacular show.

WrittenBy:Dr Ashwin Sekhar
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If you look up tonight, there’s a good chance you’ll get a treat of cosmic fireworks lighting up the sky. It is going to be a free show, thanks to the super active Perseids meteor shower peaking on August 11 and 12, and tonight. One can expect about 60-100 meteors per hour.


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Professor Mark Bailey MBE, a renowned comet expert and royally decorated astronomer from the UK, says “The Perseids is one of the most reliable meteor showers, with the added bonus that the meteors occur over a number of days (though peaking every year around August 12), and can be seen after dark during warm summer evenings.”

One does not need expensive equipment, like powerful telescopes or advanced binoculars, to enjoy the meteor show. In that way, meteor phenomena are the most democratic of all—both the rich and the poor can equally enjoy the cosmic fireworks.

Professor Bailey has written scientific literature linking astronomy, history, and archaeology. He says, “The meteors come from a rather large short-period comet (called Swift-Tuttle) having a diameter of around 25 kilometres. The comet moves in a rather stable orbit with a period of about 130 years. However, while observations of the comet have been identified dating back to Chinese records, at least as early as 69 BCE, the meteors themselves have been recognised only since around 830 AD.  It would be very interesting to try to identify earlier observations, as they might give us a clue as to the physical evolution of the comet over thousands of years.”

Meteor showers are formed due to dust released from outgassing comets when they come close to the sun. The dust trapped inside ices in the comet get released by sublimation due to intense solar heat. The ejected dust particles fall into orbits similar to that of the comet, and meteor showers occur when Earth intersects this path of dust debris. When these dust particles collide with the Earth, they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere due to friction and lead to brilliant streaks of light on the sky.

Rarely some of the bigger chunks survive this collision with atmosphere and the residue lands on ground or sea. Such remnants are called meteorites. Scientists study their age and composition using isotope dating and spectral studies.

“The Perseid meteor shower is one of best-known meteor showers, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, where the radiant and its rates are high,” says Professor Juraj Toth, a meteor astronomer based at Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovakia. “They are sometimes called falling stars or tears of the sky. In Europe, the feast of Saint Lawrence is on August 10—when the Perseids are in maximum activity—hence sometimes people call Perseid meteors as tears of St. Lawrence, who is the Christian martyr from the 3rd century. However, we know that meteors are not real falling stars or tears, but are in fact connected to evolved dust and its expression in our atmosphere.”

Dr Tobias Hinse is a top exoplanetary scientist based at the Korea Astronomy & Space Science Institute in South Korea. He says, “As part of my research, I have a scientific interest in recording meteors aiming towards detecting new meteor showers using a pair of light-sensitive cameras in the Republic of Korea. The recording of the Perseid meteor shower will be valuable for testing of video equipment.” Dr Hinse says the Perseid meteor shower is one of the most spectacular events that one can witness. “It is best seen from the northern hemisphere and occurs on an annual basis within the period from around mid-July to later-August.”

This meteor shower appears to radiate from the constellation Perseus in the sky, hence its name “Perseids”. But the meteors are not confined to just this constellation; you can see a meteor flying across anywhere in the sky. You just need to find a less cloudy patch of the sky, and pick a good spot with lesser light pollution. For kids, it’s a fun activity to count meteors and take pictures of shooting stars. It’s celestial events like these which fire a spark of scientific curiosity in students and small children.

Amateur astronomers and citizen scientists could do professional meteor counting and reliable statistics, which can be reported to the International Meteor Organisation (based in Belgium) to make long-term records for enriching meteor science and research. For serious professional scientists, this is the time to test theory with observations and fine-tune meteor stream modelling and refine observational techniques.

And as for the general public, meteor phenomena is simply an exciting and interesting cosmic event to look at.

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