When the Perseid Meteor Shower lights the August sky, you’ll see the spectacular result of debris from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, a.k.a. 109P. The comet was discovered in the Victorian Era–on July 16, 1862 by Lewis Swift and on July 19,1862 by Horace Parnell Tuttle.
This year we might see an extra surge in the Perseid Meteor Shower, thanks to a relatively young filament of dust drifting across Earth’s orbit. According to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office in Huntsville, Alabama, “It boiled off the comet during the Civil War, in 1862.”
The rest of Perseid dust and debris is much older than the Victorian Era. Some of it is hundreds, if not thousands of years old. This debris has passed through orbit many times, so it is more dispersed. (Comets themselves are believed to be 4.6 billion years old.)
Cooke says “Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11-12.” That’s when Earth is expected to pass through the younger filament.”
“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.”
Perseid meteor showers whiz through space at 132,000 miles per hour.
Perseid meteor showers were so named because they appear to come from the constellation Perseus.
When they collide with Earth’s atmosphere, meteors reach temperatures of 3,000 to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Typically meteors burn up at 50 miles above the Earth’s surface and we see streaks of light across the sky. As such, they present no threat to Earth.
Most years we merely graze the edge of Comet Swift-Tuttle’s stream of debris. Occasionally, Jupiter’s gravity tugs the huge network of dust trails closer, and Earth plows through closer to the middle, where there’s more debris.
The Perseid meteor shower is visible each year beginning in mid-July. It peaks between August 9 and 14.
It seems like Comet Swift-Tuttle is making its yearly visit to Earth. In fact, Earth is passing through the trails of debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the sun every 133 years.
Lewis A. Swift first became interested in astronomy as a boy when he observed the Great Comet of 1843. He was one of only a few humans to witness the Comet Halley two times—76 years apart. According to the New York Times, 1902, he discovered 1,342 nebulae and 15 comets including the Comet Swift-Tuttle.
His early observations of the night sky occurred in Rochester, NY where he was “lain out in the snow” on the roof of Duffy’s Cider Mill. He later attracted a patron who funded an observatory for Swift. When his patron went bankrupt in the Panic of 1893, Swift moved to California where he became director of Mount Lowe Observatory.
Charles Wesley Tuttle was an amateur astronomer who built his own telescope. In 1850, he was hired as an assistant observer at the Harvard College Observatory. He discovered and co-discovered numerous comets and galaxies. When Charles Wesley was forced to leave his position at Harvard due to failing eyesight, his brother Horace stepped in.
According to Richard E. Schmidt in The Tuttles of Harvard College Observatory, the Tuttle brothers are the forgotten pioneers of American astronomy of the mid-nineteenth century.
Comet seeking brought real benefits to the Harvard College Observatory. It provided state of the art observational data for astronomical research. You can read about Harvard Observatory, early night sky photography and the work of Williamina Fleming and other female astronomers from the Victorian Era here.
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