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Perseid meteor shower to streak across Kentucky’s night sky this weekend

Fifty-one Perseid meteors were captured in this composite image of 30-second exposures taken over six hours in 2004. The annual Perseid meteor shower is one of the most visible to the human eye.
NASA
/
NASA
Fifty-one Perseid meteors were captured in this composite image of 30-second exposures taken over six hours in 2004. The annual Perseid meteor shower is one of the most visible to the human eye.

The Perseid meteor shower will hit its peak this weekend, with the most meteors visible in the hour just before dawn on Sunday morning.

The annual Perseid meteor shower — one of the biggest and clearest showers people can see with the naked eye — is streaking across the sky and will hit its peak this weekend.

Conditions for meteor gazing are especially favorable this year with the moon in a waning crescent, leaving only a thin sliver in the sky.

With barely any moonlight, the meteors should show up brightly starting around 11 p.m. Saturday, with one coming every 15 minutes. The pace will increase into early Sunday, hitting a zenith just before dawn. Last year, a full moon made the shower difficult to see.

Michael Harris, president of the Louisville Astronomical Society, said Louisvillians can expect to see 60 to 80 meteors during the Perseid's peak hour. In urban and suburban areas, people can expect to see fewer meteors than those in the country, away from ambient light.

“The main issue this year might be the weather because it's supposed to be partly cloudy,” Harris said. “The predictions are that this will be a pretty good year for the density of the meteors. And so I'm hoping that we get our skies to cooperate.”

While the meteors should be plainly visible at night, the Louisville Free Public Library also has telescopes, donated by the astronomical society, available for checkout for one week periods for the more enthusiastic watcher.

The Louisville Astronomical Society is holding a viewing Saturday night at the James G. Baker Center for Astronomy out in Curby, Indiana. The event is for paid members of the society only. Harris said he would also recommend viewing the meteors from an observation field in E.P. Tom Sawyer State Park.

The Bluegrass Amateur Astronomy Club in Lexington will also host a stargazing event on the night of the shower at Raven Run Nature Sanctuary. The event begins around sunset and lasts for two to three hours.

Harris said he’s been watching the Perseid shower since he was just 12 years old. Watching the shower is one of the more accessible astronomical activities and a good way to get kids involved in stargazing, he said.

“What you will see is that from a specific spot in the sky, every few minutes, a meteor will appear to shoot out and light up and then disappear,” Harris said. “Either set up a lounge chair or picnic blanket and just lay back and kind of stare at that area of the sky.”

That point of origin is called the radiant and it’s where meteor showers get their name. The Perseids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus, which is in the northeast this time of year.

According to NASA, the best way to view the meteor shower is to find a dark area, with the least light and dust pollution, and lie on your back to get the widest view of the night sky possible. NASA scientists also recommend people give themselves 30 minutes outside to acclimate to the dark.

Perseid meteors are caused by the debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet. As the Earth and comet pass each other on their respective orbits around the sun, bits of the comet’s debris get caught in the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up. Some meteors have already passed through Earth’s orbit, but they will be most visible this weekend for the northern hemisphere.

Swift-Tuttle is the largest known object known to repeatedly pass close to Earth. According to Space.com, its size is roughly equal to the object that decimated the dinosaurs.

The Perseids aren’t the only meteor show of the year, but they usually promise to be one of the best due to the warm temperatures and high visibility.

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Sylvia is the Capitol reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email her at sgoodman@lpm.org.