Perseid Meteor Shower Falls Victim To Fake News. Sad!

Aug 9, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 4:56 pm

When it comes to astronomical events, this year's annual Perseid meteor shower is in serious danger of being, shall we say, eclipsed.

But that hasn't kept it from becoming yet another casualty of fake news. Fueled by false Internet memes and sites such as Physics Astronomy (headlines include "Quantum Consciousness: The Universe May Be One Entity And Aware Of Itself" and "This One Gif Is Better Than Anything Else You'll See Today"), the Perseid peak this year is being wrongly billed as "the brightest shower in recorded human history."

Several sources include the added imperative that, regardless of your age, it's probably the last chance to see anything that even comes close, meteor-wise, that is. A (presumably second-rate) repeat won't roll around for another 96 years, they say.

Bill Cooke is trying to set the record straight. And as head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center, he ought to know.

"[No] such thing is going to happen," Cooke says.

"For one thing, the Perseids never reach storm levels (thousands of meteors per hour). At best, they outburst from a normal rate between 80-100 meteors per hour to a few hundred per hour," he says in a statement. "The best Perseid performance of which we are aware occurred back in 1993, when the peak Perseid rate topped 300 meteors per hour. Last year also saw an outburst of just over 200 meteors per hour."

EarthSky.org points to an Internet meme that has been circulating as the possible source for the bogus claims: "We're not sure where the meme ... got its (completely erroneous) information. It definitely didn't come from astronomers, who tend to be precise and even cautious about making predictions of any kind."

So, what should you really expect Saturday night into Sunday for this year's Perseid peak? A fairly ordinary 80 or so meteors per hour, according to Sky & Telescope magazine. Still plenty impressive, assuming you've got dark skies and good weather. But then, you'll have a waning gibbous moon to wash some of them out as it gets toward midnight.

The Perseid meteor shower is caused by Earth passing through debris thrown off by the comet Swift-Tuttle. This happens every year on a very predictable schedule, beginning about July 17 until around Sept. 1, with the peak in August, according to Sky & Telescope. The annual shower takes its name from the fact that the meteors appear to emanate from around the constellation Perseus (near the very recognizable "Lazy W" of Cassiopeia).

Sky & Telescope writes: "Lots of people head out to their hammocks or sprawl out on a sandy beach or grassy lawn, talk quietly, check their phones, and share a few laughs to the shower's paired rhythms — spells of sweet languor punctuated by sudden bursts of meteoric excitement. I like a reclining lawn chair, a warm coat, and camera at my side just waiting for that jaw-dropping javelin of light."

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