Perseid prospects

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending August 9, 2014

Perseid meteors appear to come from a point near the constellation Perseus

The Perseid meteors are one of the most popular meteor showers. They have a broad peak, meaning you have a pretty good chance of seeing a Perseid for a few nights in a row as long as the weather is clear enough. This shower peaks around August 11th and 12th every year.

The moon will be a little past full for the 2014 show, so it will be up nearly all night. That can spoil the view, although probably not completely. And meteor showers are always a little unpredictable anyway, so you should just go out and look up and see whatever there is to see. While you’re waiting to see meteors, you can enjoy the view of Mars in the evening sky and contemplate the cosmic connection between the red planet and these multi-colored meteors.

Giovanni Schiaparelli was the astronomer who figured out that at least some meteor showers come on strong in the years just after certain comets passed close to the sun. He hypothesized that Earth is passing through comet dust. His study of comet orbits and meteor shower rates proved it. The Perseids were one of the showers he studied. They’re related to a comet discovered by astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle in 1862. It’s formally called 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

Swift-Tuttle orbits the sun in 133 years. The last close call was in 1992 and the 1990s were good years for Perseid meteor observers. It’s likely the comet dust will scatter and the meteor shower will fade over the next century. Perhaps it won’t fade to nothing. But those alive in the 2120s shouldn’t be surprised to find a much better mid-August meteor shower than they’d gotten used to.

Schiaparelli was also the astronomer who studied Mars and saw channels on the red planet. We now know that was an optical illusion, however, he wasn’t the only one who experienced it. An American astronomer who read about the Italian’s observations saw them too. Percival Lowell theorized about Martian beings barely surviving a rugged existence on a mostly dry and dying planet. He told stories about Martians depending on an extensive irrigation system. Fueling the fire of his imagination, English language accounts typically mistranslated the Italian word for channels into canals which connotes a carefully designed passage for water.

Don’t shed any tears for Schiaparelli or Lowell. They weren’t right about everything, but that’s how science goes. Think instead of the Perseid meteor shower as St. Lawrence shedding tears. He was a deacon martyred on or about August 12, 258 in Rome shortly after a government order to kill the Catholic Church’s leaders. The Perseid meteor shower is sometimes called the tears of St. Lawrence.