Meteor showers are made up of a comet’s debris. Pieces of the comet are blown off by the sun’s solar wind as it orbits. The result is dusty and icy particles which form trails that move about the solar system. The trails become meteor showers, such at the Perseid, which has an extensive history and is associated with Greek myth, among other beliefs.
Every year as the earth orbits the sun it passes through the comet’s debris. The earth’s movement through the debris causes the particles to hit the earth’s atmosphere. When the particles hit the atmosphere, they disintegrate which gives the sky a blazing and colorful display.
The first documented observation of the Perseid meteor shower was as early as 36 A.D. The viewing was referenced in the Chinese annals. Additionally, there were many references to the Perseid activity between the eighth and 11th centuries. In the records, August appeared to be a the month when the meteor showers were most frequently viewed. Adolphe Quetelet, of Brussels, Belgium was the first person whose records indicate the showers were visible yearly. He reported this in 1835 and said the showers appeared to flow from the Perseus Constellation.
The name Perseids means the sons of Perseus. In Greek mythology, Perseus was the founder of the Perseid dynasty of Danaans. His constellation was first discovered by Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer, in the second century.
The American Meteor Society reports that meteor shower particles appear to be traveling from a center apex. The radiant point is the term used for the center apex. In the case of the Perseid meteors, the radiant point is the Perseus Constellation. However, the particles are actually moving in parallel paths at the same speed.
The Comet 10P/Swift-Tuttle is the origin of the Perseid meteor showers. The head of the comet is 16 miles across. Swift-Tuttle takes 133 years to come full circle around the sun. Its last appearance was in 1992, and it will not be seen again until 2125. The comet was named for both of its discoverers, as they each discovered it independently. The letter “P” refers a periodic comet. According to NASA, a periodic comet’s orbit cycles are less than 200 years.
Catholics have referred to the meteor shower as the tears of Saint Lawrence (also known as San Lorenzo). This is because the meteors are plentiful during the Saint Lawrence Festival in Italy on August 10. The saint is the most beloved of the Catholic world. Their devotion to him began as early as the fourth century.
Meteor Showers Online discusses the difference between viewing the meteor from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In the north, the meteors are visible as early as July 23 and will peak mid-August with a quick decrease just a few days after the peak. Whereas, in the south the meteor shower never rises higher than the horizon. This does not mean all of the meteors are not visible. In fact, during the peak it is likely the viewer will see 10-15 meteors per hour.
While there are weaker meteor showers happening during the same time as the Perseid occurs, the way to tell the difference is the stronger meteors move at a faster rate. The Perseid is, in fact, one of the fastest moving meteor showers seen by the human eye every year. The Perseid meteor shower was named after the mythological Greek character because his constellation is the radiant point the meteors seem to originate.
By Cathy Milne
Edited By Leigh Haugh
Meteor Showers Online: Perseids
StarDate: Perseus, the Hero
American Meteor Society: Meteor Shower Basics
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Inline Image Courtesy of Kartlk Ramanthan’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License