Perseid fireballs

Jul 30, 2013 by Dr. Tony Phillips
Since 2008, the Perseids have produced more fireballs than any other annual meteor shower. The Geminids are a close second, but they are not as bright as the Perseids. "The average peak magnitude for a Perseid observed by our cameras is -2.7; for the Geminids, it is -2," explains Bill Cooke. "So on average, Geminid fireballs are about a magnitude fainter than those in the Perseids."

In astronomy, there's nothing quite like a bright meteor streaking across the glittering canopy of a moonless night sky. The unexpected flash of light adds a dash of magic to an ordinary walk under the stars.

New research by NASA has just identified the most magical nights of all.

"We have found that one produces more fireballs than any other," explains Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "It's the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on August 12th and 13th."

Using a network of meteor cameras distributed across the southern USA, Cooke's team has been tracking activity since 2008, and they have built up a database of hundreds of events to analyze. The data point to the Perseids as the 'fireball champion' of annual meteor showers.

Auroras Underfoot (signup)A fireball is a very bright meteor, at least as bright as the planets Jupiter or Venus. They can be seen on any given night as random meteoroids strike Earth's . One fireball every few hours is not unusual. Fireballs become more numerous, however, when Earth is passing through the debris stream of a comet. That's what will happen this August.

The Perseid meteor shower comes from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every year in early- to mid-August, Earth passes through a cloud of dust sputtered off the comet as it approaches the sun. Perseid meteoroids hitting our atmosphere at 132,000 mph produce an annual light show that is a favorite of many backyard sky watchers.

Cooke thinks the Perseids are rich in fireballs because of the size of the parent comet.

"Comet Swift-Tuttle has a huge nucleus—about 26 km in diameter," comments Cooke. "Most other comets are much smaller, with nuclei only a few kilometers across. As a result, Comet Swift-Tuttle produces a large number of meteoroids, many of which are large enough to produce fireballs."

Cooke recommends looking on the nights of August 12th and 13th between the hours of 10:30 PM to 4:30 AM local time. Before midnight the meteor rate will start out low, then increase as the night wears on, peaking before sunrise when the constellation Perseus is high in the sky.

For every fireball that streaks out of Perseus, there will be dozens more ordinary meteors.

"Get away from city lights," advises Cooke. "While fireballs can be seen from urban areas, the much greater number of faint Perseids is visible only from the countryside."

In total, the Perseid meteor rate from dark-sky sites could top 100 per hour.

That's a lot of magic. Enjoy the show.

Explore further: Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

2012 Perseid Meteor Shower

Aug 10, 2012

On the nights of Aug. 11th through 13th, the best meteor shower of the year will fill pre-dawn skies with hundreds of shooting stars. And that's just for starters. The brightest planets in the solar system are lining up ...

The Orionid meteor shower

Oct 15, 2012

Usually, waking up before sunrise is a good way to get a head start on the day. On Oct. 21st, waking up early could stop you in your tracks.

Perseid Meteors in 2012

Aug 08, 2012

This year’s Perseid meteor shower, already in progress, continues until about August 24th. The peak of activity is expected to occur around midday on August 12th, with a possible all-sky maximum of perhaps 50–100 ...

The Perseids are Coming

Jul 31, 2009

Earth is entering a stream of dusty debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, the source of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Although the shower won't peak until August 11th and 12th, the show is already getting underway. ...

Recommended for you

Cassini sees sunny seas on Titan

11 hours ago

(Phys.org) —As it soared past Saturn's large moon Titan recently, NASA's Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off hydrocarbon seas.

Is space tourism safe or do civilians risk health effects?

14 hours ago

Several companies are developing spacecraft designed to take ordinary citizens, not astronauts, on short trips into space. "Space tourism" and short periods of weightlessness appear to be safe for most individuals ...

An unmanned rocket exploded. So what?

17 hours ago

Sputnik was launched more than 50 years ago. Since then we have seen missions launched to Mercury, Mars and to all the planets within the solar system. We have sent a dozen men to the moon and many more to ...

NASA image: Sunrise from the International Space Station

18 hours ago

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman posted this image of a sunrise, captured from the International Space Station, to social media on Oct. 29, 2014. Wiseman wrote, "Not every day is easy. Yesterday was a tough one. ...

Copernicus operations secured until 2021

19 hours ago

In a landmark agreement for Europe's Copernicus programme, the European Commission and ESA have signed an Agreement of over €3 billion to manage and implement the Copernicus 'space component' between 2014 ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.