Supermoon to join Perseid spectacle

The debris stream left by comet Swift-Tuttle produces the Perseids

The debris stream left by comet Swift-Tuttle produces the Perseids

First published in National News © by

A dramatic "supermoon" is set to accompany this year's Perseid meteor shower, one of the most anticipated events on the skywatcher's calendar.

Given a dark, clear sky in a normal year, it is common to see more than 100 of the meteors an hour during the second week in August.

But this year the Perseids have a bright shining rival - a "supermoon".

On Sunday, two days before the meteor shower reaches its peak, the moon will become full.

Coincidentally, it will also have reached the point in its orbit that is closest to the Earth, known as "perigee".

The supermoon will be up to 14% bigger and 30% brighter than other full moons during the year.

On one level, this is bad news, according to Dr Bill Cooke from the American space agency Nasa's Meteoroid Environment Office.

"Lunar glare wipes out the black-velvety backdrop required to see faint meteors, and sharply reduces counts, he said.

But all is not lost. The debris stream left by comet Swift-Tuttle, which produces the Perseids, is wide, so the shooting stars could make an appearance well before the moon becomes full.

Dr Cooke added that the Perseids were also "rich in fireballs as bright as Jupiter or Venus" that would remain visible despite the moon's glare.

A study conducted by his team since 2008 has shown the Perseids to be the undisputed "fireball champion" of meteor showers.

"We see more fireballs from Swift-Tuttle than any other parent comet," said Dr Cooke.

Tony Markham, director of the Society for Popular Astronomy's meteor section, also urged skywatchers to stay optimistic.

"The Perseids are rich in bright meteors and so many Perseids will still be seen despite the moonlit sky background," he said, writing on the SPA's website.

"You can minimise the effect of the moonlight by observing with your back to the moon - possibly viewing the Cassiopeia/Cepheus/Ursa Minor area.

"If possible, keep the moon hidden behind trees or a nearby building."

He pointed out that at this time of year the moon is relatively close to the horizon, leaving much of the sky dark.

Mr Markham also suggested looking at an area of sky 20 to 30 degrees away from the Perseid radiant - the spot near the constellation of Perseus that the meteors appear to fly out from.

Every 133 years, comet Swift-Tuttle swings through the inner Solar System leaving behind a trail of dust.

When the Earth passes through, the dust cloud particles hit the atmosphere at 140,000 mph and burn up in streaking flashes of light, creating the spectacle known as the Perseids.

The best time to see the meteors is between Saturday and Wednesday, with activity peaking on Tuesday.

An unusually bright full "supermoon" was also seen on July 12, and another is due to appear on September 9.

But the supermoon of Sunday promises to be the most dramatic since this is when the moon will be at its closest point to the Earth all year.

At perigee, the moon is around 31,000 miles closer than when it is furthest away from the Earth.

Supermoons occur relatively often, every 13 months and 18 days, but are not always noticed because of clouds or poor weather.

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