The Milky Way lights up the Pacific Northwest sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower Friday morning, Aug. 12, 2016 by the wind mills located north of Dayton, Wash. (Michael Lopez/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via AP) Michael Lopez AP
The Milky Way lights up the Pacific Northwest sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower Friday morning, Aug. 12, 2016 by the wind mills located north of Dayton, Wash. (Michael Lopez/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via AP) Michael Lopez AP

Orange County

Fireballs falling from the skies? Yes, but not the brightest ever

By Tammy Grubb

tgrubb@heraldsun.com

August 11, 2017 02:18 PM

CHAPEL HILL

Will the Perseid meteor shower this weekend be the brightest event in 96 years?

Not likely, despite the memes circulating on social media, astronomers say. But it could be a good warm-up to the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21, which could cover a roughly 70-mile-wide corridor from Oregon to South Carolina.

“Reports are circulating that this year’s Perseids will be the ‘brightest shower in recorded human history,’ lighting up the night sky and even having some meteors visible during the day,” NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke said in his Aug. 3 blog post. “We wish this were true … but no such thing is going to happen.”

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The Perseids offer one of the most steady shows for skywatchers, radiating each year from the constellation Perseus the Hero as the Earth passes through the dust and debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet, at 16 miles wide, is the largest known object that regularly passes our planet.

As pieces of the comet’s debris enter our atmosphere, they become fireballs, producing a bright light and streaking across the sky at 37 miles per second. While most meteors never reach the planet’s surface, those that do become meteorites, such as the one the fell over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013.

A normal Perseid event can bring 50 or more meteors an hour at the peak, according to Space.com. The 2016 shower offered some of the highest meteor rates at 150 to 200 an hour — or about three to four a minute.

This year, Cooke said he expects about 150 an hour, but only about a third to be visible, since the moon is three-quarters full and bright enough to wash out the faintest meteors.

Experts advised finding a dark place to watch away from city lights, a clear view toward the northeast and turning your back to the moon. The Perseids should start shortly before midnight Friday and continue through Sunday morning. The best bet for a good show will be just after dark or in the pre-dawn hours.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Where to watch

Chapel Hill’s Morehead Planetarium will hold a public viewing event from 9 to 11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 12, at the Ebenezer Church Recreation Area, part of Jordan Lake State Recreation Area. Telescopes will be positioned at the far (west) end of the parking lot for viewing the Perseid meteor shower, and the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

While the sky is expected to remain clear, the event could be canceled if the weather turns stormy or cloudy. Keep up with any potential changes on Twitter @moreheadplanet or Facebook at facebook.com/moreheadplanetarium.

Find directions to the Ebenezer Church Recreation Area at bit.ly/2uvG7Jr.