The Perseid meteor shower is at its peak right now. If you’re the super-early-morning type (like 3:00 AM early) it can make for a great light show.
But researchers at NASA keep an eye on events like this for different reasons, not least of which is the risk they can pose to satellites and spacecraft in Earth’s orbit.
What is the Perseid meteor shower, anyway?
Meteor showers are caused when the earth runs into a stream of debris left behind by a comet or an asteroid as it moves in its orbit around the sun. The Perseid fields are caused by the debris left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle, which is one of the bigger comets in the solar system.
“And every year in the middle of August we run into the debris trail,” explained Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “And when that debris hits our atmosphere at one hundred and thirty-two thousand miles per hour it burns up and leaves these brilliant streaks of light we call Perseid meteors.”
It’s not that we’re passing near the comet itself, but rather the comet’s debris field.
“We don't want to be close to the comet,” Cooke said. “That would be a very bad day. Fortunately, that does not happen.”
The dust and debris from the comet burn up in our atmosphere, but in space, there is no atmosphere. That’s where the danger comes in.
“So those particles can strike the surfaces of spacecraft or hit solar arrays or even astronauts on the E.V.A. [extra-vehicular activity],” he said. “Basically we can tell spacecraft and manned vehicles when to batten down the hatches.”
Here on Earth, Cooke has two tips for watching the Perseid shower.
Number one, give your eyes 30 to 45 minutes to adjust to the dark.
“Don't expect to go outside, stand on your front porch, and expect Perseids to suddenly materialize,” he said.
Number two, avoid looking at your cell phone while you’re waiting.
“The light from the cell phone trashes your night vision,” he said.