Tag Archives: Perseids

The Perseids are peaking!

The Moon is kind of spoiling it a bit, but I’ve been seeing them here in my light-polluted suburb; if you have clear skies where you are, take fifteen minutes or half an hour or so to lie on the lawn and look at the sky. ¬†ūüėČ ¬†The Perseids are a fairly spread-out shower, so if tonight is a bust, give tomorrow a go, or even the night after.

Or, if ¬†the weather’s never gonna cooperate, there’s another way to observe them: by listening for the radio echoes as they trail plasma through the upper atmosphere. ¬†Here are a couple of live meteor radio streams you can listen to:



This one has the radio data represented visually rather than audibly:



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Spectacular jet photographed above a thunderstorm in Guangdong, China

Jets and sprites are weird, fleeting events that occur above thunderstorms — and for a long time, scientists were convinced they did not exist. ¬†Once in a rare while, an eyewitness would report seeing branching structures, colored red or sometimes blue, above a thunderstorm, almost like backwards lightning. ¬†But nobody could ever photograph one because they are so faint and so brief, and being that it seemed to require pure luck to spot one, collecting proof¬†seemed as impossible as the claims of such things.

Impossible until 1989, that is.  On July 6, a team from the University of Minnesota were preparing experiments for a later sounding rocket flight.  That night, they were performing a calibration exercise involving very low-light cameras when they observed a strange flash over the horizon.  It took some time to work out what they had captured on their camera, and in 1990 they published their first tentative conclusion that they had photographed some strange kind of upwards lightning from one of the summer thunderstorms so common out on the plains.  Inspired by this, other teams started analyzing video footage from low-light cameras flown aboard the Space Shuttle and found more examples.  In a few years, the phenomenon had become firmly established as a space weather phenomenon (because it occurs strictly above the tropopause, sometimes reaching as high as the aurora), and acquired a name: sprites.

By the 21st Century, sprite research had gone from a curiosity to a serious area of research, and a new form of “upwards lightning” had been discovered: jets. ¬†Often blue while sprites are often red, jets are much taller, stretching for dozens of miles into space, but are every bit as transient. ¬†Today, with low-light cameras now available to the general public (or at least those members with a serious astrophotography habit) which are far superior to those available in 1989, sprite photography has become something of a¬†sport among amateur astrophotographers, although even now, most are captured by chance while photographing other things.

Take this spectacular image of a blue jet terminating in a red structure like a sprite (though the presence of the jet means scientifically the whole thing is considered a jet). ¬†The photographer, Phebe Pan, had set up his fisheye camera to photograph the Perseids in Guangdong, China last weekend. ¬†There was a thunderstorm in the distance, but his eyes were on the meteors. ¬†Then he and other observers saw the jet climbing up out of the cloud, branching like a tree, and then disappearing in under a second. ¬†The whole, ephemeral structure could easily be fifty miles tall; it’s really a staggering thing to contemplate.


Now go on over to Spaceweather.com and check out the full gallery of this jet. ¬†Especially check out the fisheye version (as far as anyone knows, the only fisheye image ever taken of a jet) and the close-up version. ¬†They’re obviously all really various cropped versions of the same original, but it’s worth looking at them all, and reading Pan’s amazing account of seeing this spectacular sight.

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Perseids peak tonight: how to watch

Tonight, one of the most famous and reliable meteor showers will peak: the Perseids. ¬†The Perseids are debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, strewn along its orbital path, and though they present no danger at all, they can be very pretty. ¬†Astronomers are predicting a peak rate of 100 meteors per hour, if you’ve got very dark skies. ¬†And this year, the Moon is cooperating with that, being a thin waxing crescent.

How to watch

The only equipment you need is your eyeballs! ¬†Telescopes and binoculars do more harm than good, by restricting your field of view. ¬†So the best thing to do is get a thermos full of coffee, spread a blanket on the ground, lie back, and get comfortable. ¬†Scan the sky above you and wait. ¬†If possible, find a dark-sky site, but you should be able to see a few even from suburbia. ¬†You’ll just have to wait longer since the dim ones won’t be visible. ¬†It’s even more fun if you can find a loved one to come out with you and cuddle. ¬†ūüėČ

The meteors are said to come from Perseus (hence “Perseids”), which this time of year is to the northeast. ¬†But don’t just look there — the meteor’s trails point towards Perseus, but they could be anywhere in the sky over you they hit the atmosphere and leave their glowing plasma trail as they disintegrate.

Other Stuff To See

Of course, you don’t have to just look for meteors. ¬†While you’re lying on your back is also a great time to spot satellites. ¬†They move much more slowly, and their light tends to be steadier, although satellites can flare or flicker depending on their structure and motion. ¬†Iridium communications satellites are famous for brilliant flares, and the International Space Station is an easy target for anyone, if it’s passing over while you’re looking, because depending on the angle, it can shine as brightly as Venus. ¬†For satellite pass predictions customized to your location, and also Iridium flare predictions, check out Heavens Above. ¬†You’ve missed the opportunity to see the Japanese HTV “Kounotori-4” flying in tandem with the ISS, since it was berthed yesterday, but there will be more chances for that sort of thing, so keep checking Heavens Above for favorable passes!

Another thing to watch for, if you’re at high latitude, is aurorae. ¬†These are more difficult to predict, and usually depend on solar activity. ¬†There is a 60% chance of geomagnetic activity tonight, when a coronal mass ejection is predicted to strike the Earth’s magnetosphere, but these don’t always go where they’re expected to go; it’s even harder than predicting the weather on Earth. ¬†So check out SpaceWeather.com¬†for up-to-date information, download the 3D Sun app for iOS or Android, or just click this link for a live look at the north auroral oval (here’s the¬†south one) as seen by the POES spacecraft. ¬†If the yellow or red area is over your region or fairly near it, you may have a spectacular display.


SPACE.com: Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend

Heavens Above


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The Perseids have started!

Have you ever seen a shooting star? ¬†If you haven’t, now’s a good time to fix that. ¬†Every year, Earth passes through a stream of debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, and NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office is already reporting hits. ¬†(Hits to our atmosphere, that is. ¬†The debris is so tiny that it doesn’t reach the ground.) ¬†Because of Earth’s motion relative to the debris stream, the meteor trails all appear to point to the constellation Perseus, so this particular shower is called the Perseids. ¬†The Perseids are one of the most reliable meteor showers of all, typically maxing out at 100 per hour. ¬†(We’re not to that point yet; the peak of the shower is predicted for the night of August 12-13.) ¬†And it’s the best shower that occurs in summer, when it’s actually pleasant to lie out under the stars. ¬†ūüėČ

To watch meteors, you do not need a telescope. ¬†In fact, you don’t *want* a telescope for this, because it’s no good for meteor viewing. ¬†You want to see as much sky as possible at once, so what you want to do is spread a blanket out on the ground and lie on your back, or use a reclining lawn chair. ¬†Get comfortable, and wait. ¬†If you can find a particularly dark sky for this, you’ll see more meteors, since light pollution can wash out fainter meteors.

For more information, NASA has a nice article about why the Perseids are so reliable, Spaceweather.com has a live gallery of user-submitted images of meteors, and Space Weather Radio will let you hear live radar returns from incoming Perseids — the only way to observe them in daylight, or when it’s cloudy.

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