Perseid Meteor Shower Is A Chance To Time Travel — Meteors Dating To Civil War To Graze Sky

What to travel back in time? Just look up at the night sky this week, and you can. On Wednesday and Thursday night, the Earth will be treated to the Perseids meteor shower, and the bits of comet we’ll get to see date back to the Civil War.

To understand what that means, a brief astronomy lesson is necessary.

A meteor shower is really just the debris ripped from a comet, in this case the Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 130 years, Slate explained. The sun’s heat and tidal forces are constantly attacking these comets, wrenching them apart and sending fragments careening through space. Dust trails then follow the icy bodies in their orbit, Forbes added.

Eventually, the Earth passes through this debris, the fragments only about as big as a grain of sand. This dust enters our atmosphere, gets very hot, and lights up. Voila: A meteor shower. If the fragments are particularly dense, then a spectacular event ensues.

This year, the Earth’s Perseids meteor shower features debris cleaved from the Swift-Tuttle in 1862. A whopping 153 years later, we’re finally passing through it.

The meteor shower occurs in about the same spot in the night sky every year, because the fragments remain in Earth’s orbit and we keep passing through it; the Perseids in particular shows off its light show in the northwest sky. The meteors seem to come from the constellation Perseus, which gives the meteor shower its name, added.

The display will be visible throughout the Northern Hemisphere. It’ll be particularly astonishing this year because the meteor shower coincides with a new moon, plunging the sky into total darkness. The best nights to catch it are Wednesday and Thursday night, but it’s visible until the end of the month.

Predictions are already being made about what stargazers can expect to see: The Royal Astronomy Society has said one meteor will cross the sky every few minutes; NASA predicts 100 per hour. Though you can catch the shower a couple hours after dark, it’s best if you sacrifice a couple hours of sleep and stay up past midnight.

Just find a nice, open view of the sky, as dark as you can manage — even people in the city should be able to catch the shower without too much difficulty — and face northwest toward the constellation Cassiopeia.

And then … just wait. Keep your telescope or binoculars at home, since that’ll narrow your view of the sky. Plus, the naked eye is quite sufficient to catch the shower.

You can even listen to the meteors zip through the Earth’s atmosphere at 130,000 mph. As they travel, they ionize the air, and ionized air reflects radio waves. This creates a radio “ping,” which you can listen to on Space Weather Radio.

If you miss it, never fear. The Perseids is just one of three regular displays, though the most reliable. This event will be followed by the Leonids in mid-November and the Geminids in mid-December.

[Photo Courtesy Ethan Miller/Getty Images]