Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Perseids of 2016 ... beyond the hype

It's one of those years again when we are getting not only the usual bubbly stories about a summer sky full of "shooting stars" (with often highly misleading illustrations in the form of composite images with numerous meteors in one frame or completely made-up artist's views sometimes resembling the end of the world) from mainstream media and certain astronomy website alike but this year, we are told, the Perseids will be super-awesome, much stronger than usual, the best in a decade, unlike any before. Wow ...

Reality check: page 12 of the 2016 Meteor Shower Calendar of the International Meteor Organization. The key sentence there: "Results from Mikhail Maslov and Esko Lyytinen indicate that we will cross a part of the stream which was shifted closer to the Earth’s orbit by Jupiter in 2016. As a consequence, the background ZHR may reach a level of 150–160." Which would be 1/5 to 1/4 more meteors at the peak than an typical year with a ZHR (zenith hourly rate) of 120 or so - this is not a dramatic increase, on a par with some recent years and well below e.g. the 1993 Perseids show which reached a maximum ZHR over 400.

Maslov's current calculation can be found in more detail here: He sees the - somewhat - higher than usual peak at 12:40 UTC on August 12 which for Europe means that the nights Aug. 11/12 and 12/13 should be comparable. Taking into account the radiant altitude and the bright Moon - which sets only after midnight, meteor party planners beware! - one can hope for actual maxmimum hourly rates under otherwise excellent conditions in the 70s, i.e. on average one meteor per minute: see the first and third diagram at the bottom of this Dutch website, blue = what you would see.

There is, however, a minority view based on a NASA model mentioned in this presentation from 2015 which sees a somewhat higher maximum ZHR (around 200) half a day earlier (around 0:30 UTC on August 12): should that happen European observers would be in a sweet spot an see twice as many meteors per hour in the wee hours of August 12 (middle diagram on the Dutch page). It is this vague possibility that much of the (extra) hype this year is based upon, but be warned that NASA's model has had a worse track record that what goes into the IMO Calendar.

So far I've seen only this one article strongly arguing against the PER 2016 hype and pointing out (some of) its problems, though it still uses exaggerated ZHR numbers and doesn't discuss the competing models. Some further information pages and articles of widely varying quality and in several languages about the 2016 Perseids can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here - but from the preceding paragraphs you now know what to believe and where to be skeptical. And what really happens can be followed here, with a few hours delay while visual reports from experienced observers are being ingested.