The Perseid meteor shower happens every August with a peak performance night typically happening halfway through the month, but Jupiter’s gravitational pull is expected to give this year’s cosmic show an opening act.
Each year the Earth’s orbit takes our planet through the orbit track of the Comet Swift-Tuttle. As we pass through this part of our solar system, our atmosphere burns up debris left in the comet’s wake, giving Earthlings a stunning display of “falling stars.”
“You can actually start seeing these meteors as early as about the 24th of July, going until late August, until about the 24th,” said Dan Koehler, director of tours and special programs at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Koehler said, “The true peak is the evening of the 12th going into the 13th,” but that this year, due to gravitational pull of Jupiter on the comet’s debris, it has been predicted that there will be an additional preliminary peak period happening the evening of Aug. 11 going into Aug. 12. “The average [meteors viewed per hour] on a peak night is about 60,” said Koehler.
Chicagoans can view the meteor shower at the Adler Planetarium’s annual Perseid Meteor Shower Star Party on Friday night from 6 p.m. to midnight at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. The far western suburban park has a slightly darker sky than Adler’s Chicago location, allowing for better visibility of the shower. The star party will include astronomers from the planetarium and volunteers from from the Naperville Astronomical Association, the Naperville Astronomical Society and the Chicago Astronomical Society manning telescopes for sky viewing, as well as other educational activities, and is expecting a turnout of about 2,000 party-goers.
Farther north, the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory will also be holding a public viewing event for the meteor shower from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Christy Cusperson, an intern at the observatory who is organizing the event this year, said “There will be a couple of meteor shower indoor activities as well as a few telescopes out to show off interesting objects in the sky,” and that the observatory is expecting about 200 guests.
However, Andrew Johnston, vice president of astronomy and collections at Adler, said the best time for viewing the streaks of burning debris will actually be past midnight, after the viewing events have ended. “The reason for that is because after midnight, the Earth has rotated so that you are on the side of the Earth that’s leading the way as the Earth is sweeps around the sun. So you will tend to see more particles from the comet impacting the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said.
While watching the meteor shower from more remote viewing locations outside of the city, farther away from artificial light, would be ideal, Johnston stressed that “no matter where you are there is always stuff to see up in the sky.” For those unable to make the trek out to dark sky locations, Johnston said, “You can see some meteors even in the middle of the city.”