Look Up! The Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend

Kenneth Snyder, Flickr //  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Kenneth Snyder, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Look up tonight and you’ll see streaks of light headed your way. The annual Perseid meteor shower has arrived, and if the skies are clear and light pollution low, you are in for quite a treat: This is easily the best meteor shower of the year. Those who stay up late (or wake really early) are virtually guaranteed to see something.

FROM SLAYER OF MEDUSA TO COMETARY DUST 

The Perseids are the result of a debris field left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. This is a Halley-type comet that orbits the Sun every 133 years. (Its highly eccentric orbit takes it far beyond Pluto in the meantime.) As the comet travels across the solar system, it leaves behind a trail of dust and sand-sized particles that, over the course of centuries and millennia, becomes an increasingly dense field. When the Earth's orbital path crosses this debris, the speed and force of our planet colliding into the comet's phantom particles vaporizes them. A distinctive "shooting star" is the result of energy released by a speck of cometary dust colliding with the atmosphere of a 3.7-octillion-mile celestial object—that would be Earth—moving at 67,000 miles per hour.

The Perseids get their name from the constellation from which they seem to originate: Perseus. Don’t limit yourself to staring at the celestial slayer of Medusa, however. (Though bonus points if you can actually find it.) Meteors will appear across the night sky. The shower was first formally "discovered" in 1835 by astronomer Adolphe Quételet, though it has been observed for millennia. Meteors near the shower’s peak are sometimes called the "tears of St. Lawrence," coinciding with the feast day of St. Lawrence of Rome.

KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR FIREBALLS

If you are in an area of low light pollution—that is, any remote area away from a city—you will be able to see between 30 and 40 meteors per hour this weekend. Believe it or not, that makes this a bad year for the Perseids shower, down from a possible 150 per hour. Many meteors will be obscured by the big bright Moon still riding high after reaching a full phase earlier this week.

To best experience a meteor shower, NASA recommends you dress for the lower temperatures that come at night and give your eyes a good 30 minutes to adjust to the darkness. Take a blanket outside, lay back, and take in the sky. Be on the lookout for fireballs, which are particularly bright meteors. (You'll know one when you see it.)

The best time to see the Perseids shower is between midnight and dawn on Saturday. If you miss the Perseids early Saturday morning due to bad weather (or just sleeping in), you can try again at the same time each early morning well into next week. If being outside just isn’t your thing, but astronomy is, you can also view the meteor shower online at Slooh, beginning at 8:00 p.m. EDT on Saturday. The Perseids are the perfect warmup for the main event later this month: a total solar eclipse over North America on August 21.

How to See the Full Sturgeon Moon on Thursday

Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images
Brook Mitchell, Stringer/Getty Images

The full moon of every month has a special nickname. Some—like September's harvest moon, December's cold moon, and May's flower moon—have obvious connections to their seasons, while other names are harder to decode. August's sturgeon moon is an example of the latter. It may not be the prettiest lunar title in The Old Farmer's Almanac, but that doesn't mean the event itself on August 15, 2019 won't be a spectacular sight to behold.

What is a Full Sturgeon Moon?

The first (and normally the only) full moon that occurs in August is called a sturgeon moon. The name may have originated with Native American tribes living around the Great Lakes in the Midwest and Lake Champlain in New England. These bodies of water contain lake sturgeon, a species of freshwater fish that grows up to 6.5 feet in length and can live 55 years or longer. August's full moon was dubbed the sturgeon moon to reflect its harvesting season. This full moon is sometimes called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the blackberry moon for similar reasons.

When to See the Full Sturgeon Moon

On Thursday, August 15, the full sturgeon moon will be highly visible around sunrise and sunset. The satellite will be 99.9 percent illuminated by the sun when it sets Thursday morning at 5:57 a.m EDT—just nine minutes before dawn. On the West Coast, the setting moon will coincide perfectly with the rising sun at 6:15 a.m. PDT.

If you aren't interested in getting out of bed early to catch the sturgeon moon, wait until Thursday evening to look to the horizon. Twenty-seven minutes after sunset, the full moon will rise on the East Coast at 8:21 p.m. EDT. On the West Coast it rises at 8:10 p.m. PDT, 30 minutes after the sun sets.

The moon generally looks bigger and brighter when it's near the horizon, so twilight and dawn are ideal times to catch the spectacle. But it's worth taking another peek at the sky closer to midnight Thursday night; the Perseid meteor shower is currently active, and though the light of the moon may wash them out, you're most likely to spot a shooting star in the late night and early morning hours.

A Full Harvest Moon Is Coming in September

suerob/iStock via Getty Images
suerob/iStock via Getty Images

The Old Farmer's Almanac lists a special name for every month's full moon, from January's wolf moon to December's cold moon. Even if you're just a casual astronomy fan, you've likely heard the name of September's full moon. The harvest moon is the full moon that falls closest to the fall equinox, and it's associated with festivals celebrating the arrival of autumn. Here's what you need to know before catching the event this year.

What is a harvest moon?

You may have heard that the harvest moon is special because it appears larger and darker in the night sky. This may be true depending on what time of night you look at it, but these features are not unique to the harvest moon.

Throughout the year, the moon rises on average 50 minutes later each night than it did the night before. This window shrinks in the days surrounding the fall equinox. In mid-latitudes, the moon will rise over the horizon only 25 minutes to 30 minutes later night after night. This means the moonrise will occur around sunset several evenings in a row.

So what does this mean for the harvest moon? If you're already watching the sunset and you catch the moonrise at the same time, it will appear bigger than usual thanks to something called the moon illusion. It may also take on an orange-y hue because you're gazing at it through the thick filter of the Earth's atmosphere, which absorbs blue light and projects red light. So if you've only seen the full harvest moon around sunset, you may think it always looks especially big and orange, while in reality, any full moon will look that way when it's just above the horizon.

When to See the Harvest Moon

This year, the harvest moon will be visible the night of Saturday, September 14—about a week before the fall equinox on September 23. The moon will reach its fullest state at 12:33 a.m. ET—but if you're still convinced it's not a true harvest moon without that pumpkin-orange color, you can look for it at moonrise at 7:33 p.m. on September 13.

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