Every August our planet passes through the trail of debris left behind by the ancient comet Swift-Tuttle, and every year Earthlings are treated to a spectacular meteorite shower. But this year the heavens are expected to crank up the dial on the atmospheric fireworks, with our planet traveling closer to the heart of the comet trail to set up one of the most dazzling meteor showers you'll likely see all year.
Each year the Perseid meteor shower rolls into town to hit its peak between August 11 and 13. Like other meteor showers, the spectacle is created when our atmosphere comes into contact with a stream of debris, such as that trailing comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 133 years.
Sometimes numbering in the trillions, tiny particles around the size of a grain of sand rocket along in Swift-Tuttle's trail at 132,000 mph. So when they hit the Earth's atmosphere they make quite a splash, sending white hot streaks shooting across the night sky which then disintegrate and vanish from view. The meteors are dubbed Perseids as they appear to originate from the constellation of Perseus.
Naturally, the outer fringes of the debris stream are less dense than its center, and these are usually the regions that we frequent. But every now and then, Jupiter's gravity will pull the stream right into our path, putting us closer to its center and right in the thick of the action. And NASA experts believe 2016 will be a year when we experience one such Perseid meteor outburst, the first since 2009.
"Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11 and 12," says Bill Cooke from NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office. "Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour."
Those estimates are for those in the Northern Hemisphere. Those in the Southern Hemisphere can still enjoy the show, but only with about a third as many meteors as those their northern neighbors can expect. So if you're awake between midnight and dawn on August 11 or 12, head outside and have a gander at the sky, you'll likely catch some ancient space debris going down in a blaze of glory.
"Here's something to think about," says Cooke. "The meteors you'll see this year are from comet flybys that occurred hundreds if not thousands of years ago. And they've traveled billions of miles before their kamikaze run into Earth's atmosphere."
Rhiannon Blaauw from NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office provides some viewing tips in the video below.