Early morning of 12th August 2016 – for those of you in the northern hemisphere with clear skies (good luck Manchester folks!) you should be treated to a bumper show of shooting stars from the annual Perseids meteor shower. Earth is passing through a dust trail left behind the Swift-Tuttle comet, which last passed close to the Earth in 1992 and wont be back our way until 2126 (it is currently hurtling on an orbit towards the outer Solar System).
You can read more about why this year is predicted to be a good year for viewing at http://www.space.com/33671-perseids-get-a-boost-from-jupiter.html – there are predictions that you might see up to 150-200 events an hour
If its raining where you are (and looks like it will be here!), but you want to watch what’s going on your can at various places online including the UK Meteor Observation Network http://www.ukmeteorwatch.co.uk/
Every shooting star you see (or watch online…) is caused by a tiny dust grain from the comet’s tail burning up about 40-70 km above our heads as it enter’s Earth’s atmosphere. These particles do not have enough mass and are too porous to normally survive the atmospheric entry process, so as they pass through the upper atmosphere they heat up and then explode creating a streak of light.
Sometimes if these cosmic dust particles do survive the entry process we can study them in more detail to understand the makeup and variability of different comets. For example, there are expeditions run by NASA to fly high altitude planes through the dust trails and collect samples. These particles can then be studied in our laboratories, like we have in the Isotope Group, to investigate the origin, evolution and diversity of the Solar System.
Enjoy the show tonight and keep in mid every shooting star you see will be a piece of some of the oldest material in the Solar System (~4.5 billion years old) disintegrating in front of your eyes!
Get in touch with Earth and Solar System on twitter (https://twitter.com/EarthSolarSystm) if you spot a shooting star in tonight’s sky spectacular show.