I watched my first meteor shower in college. We loaded into a friend’s car, stocked up on snacks and drinks that we weren’t old enough to enjoy, and drove up a mountain to camp out and watch the shooting stars. It was cold and we didn’t see much, but I was hooked on the experience.
Since then, I’ve learned that shooting stars are anything but their namesake. Meteor showers actually occur when the Earth, in its orbit around the sun, passes through trails of debris left behind by comets. When this debris enters Earth’s atmosphere it burns up and leaves behind the streaks of light that many refer to as “shooting stars.”
The Perseid meteor shower – owing its name to the constellation Perseus from which it appears to fly out of – occurs annually each August and is an ongoing event. The Earth has actually been passing through it since July 17 and it will continue until August 24. The Perseid meteor shower is made up of tiny pieces that have broken off from the Swift-Tuttle comet which orbits the sun once every 133 years and is the largest object known to regularly pass by Earth.This month’s meteor shower will be one of the biggest of the year and it is forecast to be the most impressive Perseid meteor shower in 20 years when it peaks around August 12.
In a recent news release, NASA’s meteor expert Bill Cooke predicted that this year’s Perseid meteor shower will feature an “outburst” in which the meteors will appear at double the usual rates. This unusual outburst is thanks to the gravitational pull of Jupiter which has pulled some extra debris into the path of the Earth this year.
For your best chance at viewing this awesome celestial event, here are some top tips:
- Avoid as much light pollution as possible. Find a dark place, away from artificial lights for your best shot at maximizing your view. To really absorb the experience, try to get outside at least 20 minutes before the peak so that your eyes have time to adjust to the low light and are more able to pick out the meteors above.
Look for the Perseus constellation. This constellation rises at roughly 10pm local time. In the northern hemisphere, it rises in the northeast sky during August and descends into the northwest, following the constellation Cassiopeia. The Perseid shower can also be viewed from the southern hemisphere though it will not be as visible. You do not need to find the constellation to catch the show since the meteors will streak across the sky in every direction, but they will all originate from a point near Perseus.
- Go out sometime after midnight and watch for at least an hour. The moon will be setting by midnight, meaning meteors will be more visible. This, combined with the pattern that the Perseid shower typically peaks between midnight and dawn, will mean that your best chance for an impressive show will be sometime between midnight and 4AM. Be patient and stick it out to increase your odds even further.
- Look for the most impressive show between August 11-13. Most predictions agree that the absolute peak with up to 200 meteors per hour should occur in the early morning hours of August 12. But the show should be good anywhere in this window, whether you catch the “outburst” or not.
- If all else fails or the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can count on NASA. Tune in to the NASA Perseid meteor shower feed beginning Thursday at 10PM ET and continuing through the early hours of Friday morning. Check out the briefing from NASA above for more information.
I plan to get up and watch at some point Saturday night, when we’re out on the boat. It may not be the peak, but I think we’ll avoid most of the light pollution that way. If it’s a good show I’ll wake the boys and share the experience with them. Fingers crossed!