Perseid meteor shower lights up the sky

14 August 2013

Astronomers rewarded as Comet Swift-Tuttle meteors bow out in style 

Meteorologists predicted clear skies and perfect conditions for this year's Perseid display, and the 26km-wide Comet Swift-Tuttle did not disappoint. 

Every year between mid-July and mid-August, as the Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, dust particles from the comet’s tail create a spectacular display of shooting stars as the meteors effectively end their life. Dr Caroline Smith, the Museum's Curator of Meteorites, described the meteors, or dust grains, appearing as 'a bright streak of light' as they burn up. 

Origins of the Solar System

According to Dr Smith, 'Scientists around the world, including those at the Natural History Museum and other UK research institutions, are actively studying comets to better understand the birth and formation of the Solar System and the potential (or not) risk of an impact with Earth in the future.' 

Dr Smith confirmed that no meteorites from the shooting stars (meteors) will land since they burn up completely and disappear. 

The age of Comet Swift-Tuttle has not been precisely determined, but it can be dated from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago. Dinosaurs were wiped out 66 million years ago by a comet 10km in diameter.

'We are learning more and more about comets from various observations using telescopes around the world and space missions, such as Stardust, which has collected cometary dust particles and returned them for study in labs on Earth,' Dr Smith said.

Most meteors are dust to sand-sized particles that burn up as they pass through Earth's atmosphere. Larger fragments that don't burn up completely and fall onto the Earth's surface are meteorites. 

A small number of meteors can be seen most nights in a clear sky, but it is only at certain times of year that thousands of meteors appear from a single point in the sky.

Comet Swift-Tuttle, parent of the Perseids (so-named because the point, or radiant, from which the meteors appear lies within the constellation Perseus) last passed close to Earth in 1992 and will do so again in summer 2125.

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