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Perseid outburst expected in 2016

Outburst – perhaps 200 meteors an hour – predicted for 2016 Perseid meteor shower. Peak night August 11-12, but watch on the nights leading up to the peak, too.

Early Perseid meteor caught on the morning of July 25, 2016 by Ken Christison.  Start watching for these meteors!  Thank you, Ken.

View larger. | Early Perseid meteor caught on the morning of July 25, 2016 by Ken Christison. Notice how colorful it is. Start watching for these meteors now! Thanks, Ken.

In 2016, astronomers expect an outburst of Perseid meteors! The prediction is for 200 meteors per hour seen on the peak night, August 11-12 (evening of August 11, morning of August 12). That’s about double the usual rate. From southerly latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll enjoy the shower, too, with about a third as many meteors expected. In 2016, the waxing gibbous moon sets before the predawn hours. So if the outburst occurs before dawn for you, the moon won’t be in the way. Will you see the outburst? Maybe. The peak rates are predicted to last about half a day, from late August 11 to mid-August 12 UTC. But, outburst or no outburst, the Perseids are always a treat. Follow the links below to learn more:

Why a Perseid meteor outburst in 2016?

When and how should I watch the Perseid meteor shower in 2016?

General rules for Perseid-watching.

What’s the source of the Perseid meteor shower?

What is the radiant point for the Perseid meteor shower?

Predicted Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) for Perseids in 2016. The ZHR is the rate of the shower at its peak, when the radiant point is overhead (before dawn from all parts of Earth).  Chart via a presentation by meteor expert Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, from presentation he gave at the Meteoroids 2016 conference in the Netherlands in June, 2016.

Predicted zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) for Perseids in 2016. The ZHR describes the shower at its peak, when the radiant is overhead (before dawn from all parts of Earth). Chart via meteor expert Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Why a Perseid meteor outburst in 2016? EarthSky asked Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, why we should expect a Perseid meteor outburst in 2016. He told us:

Every time Swift-Tuttle goes around the sun, it deposits a trail of particles which we call a meteor stream. Over time, the gravitational influence of Jupiter and other giant planets (but mainly Jupiter) changes the particle orbits, and as a result, their close approach distances to Earth will vary.

If the change for a given stream is towards Earth’s orbit, we may see greater than normal activity when our planet passes the trail’s nodal crossing.

This year Jupiter’s influence has moved the 1079, 1479, and 1862 [meteor] streams closer to Earth, so all forecasters are projecting a Perseid outburst with double double normal rates on the night of August 11-12 [evening of August 11, morning of August 12].

The peak rates are expected to last about half a day. And predictions vary for the actual time of the peak rates. So … will you see an outburst of Perseid meteors this year?

Keep reading …

Predicted times - via computer models - for peak of Perseid meteor outburst in 2016. Translate UTC to your time zone, here. Chart via a presentation by meteor expert Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, from presentation he gave at the Meteoroids 2016 conference in the Netherlands in June, 2016.

Predicted times – via computer models – for peak of Perseid meteor outburst in 2016. Translate UTC to your time zone. Chart via meteor expert Bill Cooke.

As evening falls on August 10, 11 and 12, the waxing gibbous moon will be shining near planets Mars and Saturn, and the star Antares. The green line depicts the ecliptic - the sun's yearly path and the moon's monthly path in front of the constellations of the Zodiac. The moon will set before the predawn hours on August 11, 12 and 13,  at which time the Perseid meteors  streak the nighttime most abundantly.

As evening falls on August 10, 11 and 12, the waxing gibbous moon will be shining near planets Mars and Saturn, and the star Antares. Green line depicts the ecliptic: sun’s yearly path and moon’s monthly path in front of the constellations of the Zodiac. The moon will set before the predawn hours on August 11, 12 and 13.

When and how should I watch the Perseid meteor shower in 2016? Don’t wait until the peak night (August 11-12) of the 2016 Perseid shower to watch for the meteors. Whether you see an outburst or not, the shower is always fun to watch.

But what if you do want to see the outburst? Who on Earth will see it? The fact is, folks, this is nature, and nature is inherently unpredictable. So no one can tell you – for sure – whether you’ll see an outburst on the night of August 11-12 or not. To see the maximum number of meteors, you’ll need to be watching when the radiant point, in the constellation Perseus, is overhead. That means the hours before dawn. Fortunately, the moon will be below the horizon during the predawn hours. So if the outburst occurs when it’s predawn for you, you’ll see it!

If, on the other hand, the outburst occurs when it’s evening for you – when the radiant point is low in your sky, and that night’s waxing gibbous moon is bright, you won’t see nearly as much. But you might see something, and it might be a lot of fun. That’s why we suggest you go camping and try to watch all night (or you and your friends watch in shifts) the night of August 11-12.

Also, remember … the Perseid shower rises gradually to a peak, then falls off rapidly afterwards. So forget about the outburst (too-high expectations can ruin a meteor shower), and just enjoy a regular, wonderful Perseid display!

In a typical year, although the meteor numbers increase after midnight, the Perseid meteors still start to fly at mid-to-late evening from northerly latitudes. South of the equator, the Perseids start to streak the sky around midnight.

So don’t wait for 2016’s predicted Perseid meteor outburst. Start watching for meteors – in a dark sky – in the first week of August, when the Delta Aquarid meteor shower is still rambling along steadily. In early August (and even through the peak nights), you’ll see the Perseids and Delta Aquarids together.

Keep watching in the second week of August, when the Perseids are rising to a peak.

Overall, Perseid meteors will be increasing in number from early August onward, and but moonlight will also be increasing throughout this time. First quarter is August 10, 2016. That’s okay, because a first quarter moon sets around midnight, and …

The Perseids are typically best between midnight and dawn. The hours before dawn are the very best for watching the Perseids, in most years.

Here’s how to watch in bright moonlight. Sit within a moon shadow, and otherwise enjoy an open view of sky.

Don’t rule out early evenings, either. As a general rule, the Perseid meteors tend to be few and far between at nightfall and early evening. Yet, if fortune smiles upon you, you could catch an earthgrazer – a looooong, slow, colorful meteor traveling horizontally across the evening sky. Earthgrazer meteors are rare but memorable. Perseid earthgrazers can only appear at early to mid-evening, when the radiant point of the shower is close to the horizon.

The constellation Perseus, radiant of the Perseid meteor shower

From mid-northern latitudes, the constellation Perseus, the stars Capella and Aldebaran, and the Pleiades cluster light up the northeast sky in the wee hours after midnight on August nights. The meteors radiate from Perseus.

Cassiopeia and Double Cluster

Here’s a cool binocular object to look for while you’re watching the meteors. The constellation Cassiopeia points out the famous Double Cluster in northern tip of the constellation Perseus. Plus, the Double Cluster nearly marks the radiant of the Perseid meteor shower. Photo by Flickr user madmiked

General rules for Perseid-watching. No special equipment, or knowledge of the constellations, needed.

Find a dark, open sky to enjoy the show. An open sky is essential because these meteors fly across the sky in many different directions and in front of numerous constellations.

Give yourself at least an hour of observing time, for these meteors in meteor showers come in spurts and are interspersed with lulls. Remember, your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night. So don’t rush the process.

Know that the meteors all come from a single point in the sky. If you trace the paths of the Perseid meteors backwards, you’d find they all come from a point in front of the constellation Perseus. Don’t worry about which stars are Perseus. Just enjoying knowing and observing that they all come from one place on the sky’s dome.

Enjoy the comfort of a reclining lawn chair. Bring along some other things you might enjoy also, like a thermos filled with a hot drink.

Remember … all good things come to those who wait. Meteors are part of nature. There’s no way to predict exactly how many you’ll see on any given night. Find a good spot, watch, wait.

You’ll see some.

Earth encounters debris from comet, via AstroBob

Earth encounters debris from comet, via AstroBob

What’s the source of the Perseid meteor shower? Every year, from around July 17 to August 24, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the parent of the Perseid meteor shower. Debris from this comet litters the comet’s orbit, but we don’t really get into the thick of the comet rubble until after the first week of August. The bits and pieces from Comet Swift-Tuttle slam into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at some 130,000 miles (210,000 km) per hour, lighting up the nighttime with fast-moving Perseid meteors.

If our planet happens to pass through an unusually dense clump of meteoroids – comet rubble – we’ll see an elevated number of meteors. We can always hope!

Comet Swift-Tuttle has a very eccentric – oblong – orbit that takes this comet outside the orbit of Pluto when farthest from the sun, and inside the Earth’s orbit when closest to the sun. It orbits the sun in a period of about 133 years. Every time this comet passes through the inner solar system, the sun warms and softens up the ices in the comet, causing it to release fresh comet material into its orbital stream.

Comet Swift-Tuttle last reached perihelion – closest point to the sun – in December 1992 and will do so next in July 2126.

The radiant point for the Perseid meteor shower is in the constellation Perseus.  But you don't have to find a shower's radiant point to see meteors.  Instead, the meteors will be flying in all parts of the sky.

The radiant point for the Perseid meteor shower is in the constellation Perseus. But you don’t have to find a shower’s radiant point to see meteors. Instead, the meteors will be flying in all parts of the sky.

What is the radiant point for the Perseid meteor shower? If you trace all the Perseid meteors backward, they all seem to come from the constellation Perseus, near the famous Double Cluster. Hence, the meteor shower is named in the honor of the constellation Perseus the Hero.

However, this is a chance alignment of the meteor shower radiant with the constellation Perseus. The stars in Perseus are light-years distant while these meteors burn up about 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the Earth’s surface. If any meteor survives its fiery plunge to hit the ground intact, the remaining portion is called a meteorite. Few – if any – meteors in meteor showers become meteorites, however, because of the flimsy nature of comet debris. Most meteorites are the remains of asteroids.

In ancient Greek star lore, Perseus is the son of the god Zeus and the mortal Danae. It is said that the Perseid shower commemorates the time when Zeus visited Danae, the mother of Perseus, in a shower of gold.

Bottom line: The 2016 Perseid meteor shower will probably feature a good show on in the predawn hours of August 11, 12, and 13. There might be a Perseid meteor outburst in 2016 on the night of August 11-12 (evening of August 11, morning of August 12).

Everything you need to know: Delta Aquarid meteor shower

Bruce McClure

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