Meteor showers are as entertaining as they are awe-inspiring and we’re in for a real treat later this month with the Perseids set to light up the night sky.
NASA said that when the Perseid meteor shower peaks in mid-August it’ll offer “one of our most impressive skywatching opportunities for a while.”
The Perseids, which appear as Earth passes through the debris trail of the Comet Swift-Tuttle, come around every year and appear as streaks of light that flash across the night sky. And you don’t need binoculars or a telescope to enjoy the spectacle.
For those not in the know, a meteor, commonly called a “shooting star,” is a piece of space rock that burns up when it hits Earth’s atmosphere at high speed. NASA points out that the bright streak that you see is not actually the rock, but instead the glowing hot air as the fragment hurtles through the atmosphere.
So called because they look as if they’re coming from the direction of the constellation Perseus (near Aries and Taurus in the night sky), the Perseids are one of many meteor shower events throughout the year, such as the Lyrids in April and the Geminids in December.
The space agency’s own meteor-tracking cameras spotted their first Perseid in late July, but your best chance of catching them will be during the peak viewing hours of late Saturday night on August 11 through dawn on Sunday.
How to watch
There are several key points to keep in mind to give yourself the best chance of witnessing an entertaining meteor shower.
— First, you should try to get away from any light pollution. NASA says that if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere and well away from disruptive light sources, you could get to see more than 40 Perseids an hour. But if you can’t escape the city lights, you might only see a few every hour. In other words, it’s really worth heading to a darker location if at all possible.
— Find a spot that offers an expansive view of the night sky, if possible away from things like buildings, trees, and mountains that will reduce your viewing opportunities.
— If you have a reclining seat that you can take with you, that’s great. Failing that, a sheet to lie on will do. That way you won’t have to stand the whole time with your head tilted back, putting unnecessary strain on your neck.
— Give your eyes around half an hour to adjust to the dark. If you’re coming from a brightly lit place, or you were just staring at your smartphone screen, your eyes need time to get used to the lower light levels. You’ll be surprised at how much more detail you can see in the night sky after just 15 minutes or so of adjustment.
Having said all that, you are of course at the mercy of the weather. If the clouds roll in, you may as well hunker down and watch something on your streaming service of choice. Having said that, don’t be too dismayed if the weather’s lousy that weekend. A few days on either side of that date also offer a decent chance to enjoy some Perseid activity in the night sky.
NASA notes that light pollution from a full moon and lower meteor activity during the Perseids’ peak in 2022, and from a waning crescent high in the sky for 2023, mean that this month offers the best opportunity to catch the Perseids for several years to come.