Take a peek at the Perseids

It’s that time of year again, when the annual Perseid meteor shower lights up the skies. This year’s display promises a good blaze, weather permitting, as there’s no interfering moonlight.

The meteor shower occurs as the Earth passes through debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle and meteoroids burn up in our atmosphere. It gets its name because the radiant, the point in the sky the ‘shooting stars’ seem to come from, is in the constellation of Perseus. Look for this near the familiar W of Cassiopeia.

A woodcut of the Perseus constellation, 1488 (Science Museum)

People have  observed meteors for thousands of years, but their origins were unclear. When this print of the great meteor of 1783 was made, there was still debate over whether meteors originated in the Earth’s atmosphere (‘meteor’ comes from the Greek for ‘in the sky’) or from space.

The meteor of 18 August 1783, observed from Windsor Castle (Science Museum).

By the time of the spectacular 1833 appearance of the Leonids, another annual shower, it was becoming apparent that the celestial streaks had an astronomical origin. Some decades later, Giovanni Schiaparelli linked the Perseids to Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This 1850s teaching card on comets and aerolites (another name for meteors) shows the 1833 Leonid showers in the corners (Science Museum).

If you fancy having a go at Perseid-spotting over the next few nights, here are some tips. And if you’re lucky enough to see some, why not contribute to the Great Twitter Meteorwatch?

2 thoughts on “Take a peek at the Perseids

  1. Pingback: Stories from the stores » The Meteor Man

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