The Perseids Are Coming!

By Dennis Mammana

August 2, 2018 4 min read

Week of Aug. 5-11, 2018

August has arrived, and I'm one happy guy! One reason is that I can finally see an end coming to the searing desert heat where I live. For another, the night sky is particularly generous with its offerings.

My favorite reason for enjoying August, however, is that I get to write a word that I can realistically use just once a year: "thither."

This word seems to come up every August because of the annual Perseid meteor shower. You see, it was the ancient Chinese sky watchers who first documented this celestial display in 36 A.D. and wrote that "more than one hundred meteors flew thither in the morning." Of course, they used a corresponding word in Chinese, but you get the idea.

The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary of the English Language defines the word "thither" as an adverb that means "to or towards that place." My guess is that the place to which they referred was the shower's "radiant," the part of the sky from which all shower meteors appear to originate.

The Perseid shower occurs when the Earth slams into the dusty debris expelled by Comet Swift-Tuttle. As this cometary litter plows into our upper atmosphere, it is incinerated and produces the phenomena we know as meteors. Hard to believe, but most of these are specks no larger than a grain of sand and are extinguished at heights of 50 miles or higher.

Stand outside during any such sky show and you'll see meteors (also called falling or shooting stars) all around the sky. But if you trace their paths backward, you'll discover that all appear to come from one specific location in the sky. This is called the shower radiant, and it is often named for the constellation in which it lies. That's why this month's shower is known as the Perseids: Its radiant lies in the direction of the constellation Perseus. Any meteors that do not appear to radiate from this direction are called "sporadic" meteors, and they are random flecks of interplanetary dust not part of the Swift-Tuttle swarm.

This year's peak occurs during the moonless night of Sunday, Aug. 12, and the morning of Monday, Aug. 13. But you can certainly see meteors a few nights on either side of this peak.

Typically, most meteors appear before dawn because during those hours we face the direction of our planet's motion and can watch as we sweep up meteoric particles. During these peak hours, stargazers under a dark rural sky may be able to count as many as 60 to 100 every hour, all coming from the general direction of the constellation Perseus in the northeast.

For the best view, many people camp in the mountains or the country, or set up on rural roads away from traffic. The best tools to observe the shower are just our eyes, but binoculars might be helpful to check out long smoke trails left behind by any exploding fireballs. Be sure to take a reclining lawn chair or sleeping bag and gaze up toward the northern and northeastern sky.

And I'll just bet that before the night is over, you actually hear someone utter the word "thither"!

 The Perseids are coming after dark this week.
The Perseids are coming after dark this week.

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