The annual Perseid meteor shower is set to outshine previous years with above average meteor numbers over the weekend, according to NASA.
“You might be able to see 120 an hour,” said Tony Berendsen, astronomer and guide for Tahoe Star Tours. “The normal is about 60.”
As Earth orbits around the sun and through the wake of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, bits of debris from the 17-mile-wide icy space ball enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 133,000 mph, reaching temperatures of 3,000 to 10,000 degrees and creating the meteors stargazers see in the sky.
“The comet takes 133 years to orbit the sun. When it comes in close to the sun, it heats up and sheds some of its frozen gases. In the shed frozen gases (which makes the comet’s tail), there are little particles, almost sand-like, that are responsible for the meteor showers.”
This year, however, circumstances are a bit different.
“It just so happens that this year we are passing through an area of the meteor stream that is much denser,” explained Berendsen. “The gravity of Jupiter actually affects the meteor stream and causes it to clump together in some areas.”
According to NASA, the last time the comet made a close pass by the sun was in 1992 — but the debris flying through Earth’s atmosphere this year is from previous passes near the sun. Jupiter’s gravity has pulled together at least three streams from 1862, 1479 and 1079.
A few Perseids can be seen each night between mid-July and the end of August, but Thursday and tonight would be the best chances to see a multitude of meteors, said Berendsen.
Though the bright moon will likely wash out early evening meteors, after 1 a.m. should be a good time to spot them.
“One nice thing about Lake Tahoe is that anytime you go to the lake’s shore you have a wide view of the sky. So go down to the shoreline, pick a nice comfortable spot and look up into the sky. The meteors come from the area of the sky that we call Perseus, though the meteors themselves will show up in any part of the sky,” noted Berendsen.
Viewers don’t need a telescope or binoculars to witness the meteor shower, though they need to be far away from lights and give their eyes roughly 45 minutes to adjust to the darkness.