The Hero’s Tears: Get Prepared for the Perseid Meteors 2021
The Perseid meteors are a surefire summer shower and will be a spectacular show this year.
It is one of my most beautiful astronomical observational memories from my childhood. Growing up in northern Maine, it was a family tradition to set up lounge chairs on warm nights in mid-August and watch the Perseid meteors slide silently through the inky skies with my mother and brother.
Although I now live in light-polluted Norfolk Virginia, the family tradition continues … and you couldn’t ask for a better year than 2021 for the Perseid meteors.
The position of the radiant in Perseus. Credit: the American Meteor Society.
Circumstances for the Perseids meteors in 2021: This year the peak will be on Thursday the 12th. Live elsewhere? Do not despair: meteor showers often do not follow the forecasts and can instead rise hours before or after the expected maximum; The Perseids in particular are notorious for their dual leadership lasting several hours. For Europe and the east of North America, the most important time to watch is the early hours of August 12th. Cloudy? If the sky is clear, I would look out for Perseids from August 10th in the morning or even next weekend, as there are always early stragglers.
Looking east at midnight from the 30th parallel north. Image credit: Stellarium
Based on the constellation Perseus, the hero of the Greek myth, the Perseids are sometimes referred to as “Tears of St. Lawrence” and refer to the saint who was martyred on a hot iron grate on August 10, 258 AD. The Perseids are one of the longest-running and most reliable of the annual great meteor showers, rivaling only the December Geminids for the past few years.
A Perseide from early 2021 pierces the plane of the Milky Way. Photo credits and copyright: Peter Forister (@ forecaster25)
The source of the Perseids is the periodic comet 109 / P Swift-Tuttle. This comet was discovered in 1862 and made its next perihelion in 1992 after the discovery. In a 133-year orbit, the Perseids have been a familiar shower since the mid-19th century, and the passage on Swift-Tuttle through the inner solar system three decades ago has secured strong annual returns for the shower through the dawn of the 21st century.
In recent years, the Perseids have peaked at 100 ZHR in 2020 and 80 in 2019, with the peak being very close to a full moon. This is proof of the high percentage of fireballs that the Perseids produce. The last year that the peak was near new moon was 2015 with a resulting ZHR of ~ 95.
The zenith points for the Perseids at their peak on August 12th compared to the sun-moon angle. Credit: Orbitron.
Watching Perseids is as easy as scanning the sky and waiting for one to slide by. The only tools you need are a working pair of ‘Mk-1 eyeballs’, bug spray (mosquitoes can be fierce in August), and patience. I like to keep binoculars handy to examine any remaining bolide tracks, and I run a voice recorder (or a voice recorder app on my phone these days) to keep track of meteorite numbers. Also, you can “hear” pings of meteors on the AM radio band if you are tuned to a vacant space on the watch face.
When it comes to looking for meteors, darkness is your friend. Be sure to scout out as dark a side as possible; Light pollution can significantly reduce your observed countdown. In 2021 the moon will be out of sight (a plus) … but when we say “zenith hourly rate” we are talking about an extrapolated, ideal number you would expect under a pristine sky, with radiation at the zenith directly above you. Unfortunately, none of us have this type of situation, but you can optimize your chances by searching as dark a website as possible.
Be sure to report these meteorite counts to the International Meteor Organization. It’s a great way to add to real science and understanding of how meteor streams evolve.
If the skies are clear, be sure to check out the Perseid meteors next week … we won’t have another “near perfect” season for them in the years to come.
Mission statement: A Perseide from 2019 cuts through the night sky. Photo credit: Mary McIntyre.
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