Magazine article Science News

Perseid Storm Watch: Waiting for the Light

Magazine article Science News

Perseid Storm Watch: Waiting for the Light

Article excerpt

On the night of Aug. 11, skywatchers in Asia, Europe, and eastern North America may witness one of the most spectacular displays of celestial fireworks ever recorded. That's because Earth seems poised to plow through a narrow, dense ribbon of the Perseid meteoroids -- dusty debris expelled by Comet Swift-Tuttle over the past several centuries.

A Perseid meteor shower graces our skies every August. Usually the streaks of light aren't as intense or frequent as expected this year because normally Earth passes through a broader, less concentrated stream of the meteoroids that lies farther from the orbit of Swift-Tuttle But last December marked the closest approach of the comet to Earth in its 130-year orbit around the sun (SN: 10/10/92, p.230). And on Aug. 11, Earth may travel through the densest part of the comet's dusty trail. Researchers therefore calculate that a short-lived "storm" of dust particles may enhance this year's Perseid shower, setting the sky ablaze for an hour or two as the meteoroids burn in Earth's atmosphere. The storm may begin around 8:45 EDT.

Meteor expert Bo Gustafson of the University of Florida in Gainesville cautions that such predictions have an inherent degree of uncertainity. Indeed, a team of British astronomers now suggests that although the Perseids may produce a riveting spectacle this year, Earth actually won't encounter the densest meteoroid swath until next August. Nonetheless, the fear that dusty debris could damage one of its spacecraft prompted NASA late last week to make an unprecedented decision. …

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