The month of August is one of the best times during the year to see meteors flash across the Oakland night sky. The Perseid meteor shower occurs each summer, from the end of July to August 26th. This shower is known for its frequent and bright meteors.
A meteor shower occurs when the Earth runs through dust and other debris left in the wake of a comet. Every August, the Earth runs through the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. While this comet only graces Earth’s sky every 133 years, our passage through its orbital debris is an annual event.
While meteors from this shower can be seen over the course of a month, the peak time to see them is on the night of Wednesday August 12th and before dawn on Thursday August 13th. During the shower’s peak, somewhere between 50 and 100 meteors per hour might be seen, depending on how clear, dark, and visible the sky is from your viewing location.
Meteor streaking across the starry sky.
This week’s peak viewing time is better than in most years because the moon will be ‘new,’ meaning that it is near the sun in the sky and therefore not visible at any point during the night. The only thing that could put a damper on an excellent night’s meteor viewing this week is cloud cover (FYI, Wednesday’s overnight forecast calls for ‘mainly clear skies’).
This meteor shower is known as the Perseid meteor shower because the meteors appear to come from a point in the sky within the constellation Perseus. If you see Perseid meteors and trace their trails backward in the sky, they will all appear to emanate from a single point in Perseus. This point is known as the shower radiant. The radiant will move during the night, starting low in the northeast around midnight, moving high overhead before dawn. As a result, the best time to view Perseid meteors this month is before dawn begins, when the radiant is high in the sky. That said, you can see some Perseids as soon as it’s dark, even when the radiant is still below your horizon – just don’t expect to see a lot of them in the early evening.
Location of the Perseid Meteor Shower Radiant.
Meteors seen near the radiant tend to be short and quick, while ones seen farther away will tend to be longer and brighter. Moonlight or light cloud can obscure faint meteors, so a clear sky with no moon bodes well for this week’s peak event.
And in case you’re wondering, you need not fear being hit by a meteor. Most meteors are the size of the head of a pin and because they hit the atmosphere at a sizzling 37 miles per second, they vaporize about 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. So, every time you see a bright meteor slide across the sky, you’re probably watching a tiny particle vaporizing in a trail of glory in the uppermost reaches of the atmosphere.
One more fact about the Perseid meteors — they sometimes leave visible ‘trains’ that continue to glow for several seconds after the meteor, itself, burned out.
There’s no right or wrong place in the sky to look for meteors. While they may seem to backtrack to a single location in the sky, they can occur in any quadrant.
What’s more important is to limit the amount of light pollution in your viewing area. If you go out in your backyard to watch the light show and you leave all your lights on, you won’t see nearly as many meteors as you will if you keep all the lights off and view the shower in a dark, starry sky. It’s also important that your eyes be dark-adapted. It takes about ten minutes for your eyes to become most sensitive, once the lights are out.
So, turn out all unnecessary lights, go outside on Wednesday night or Thursday before dawn, and enjoy another of nature’s spectacles occurring in the skies over Oakland as meteors flash in utter silence, 60 miles above the city.
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