The Perseids — the annual light show caused by a bunch of space dust particles streaking into our atmosphere from the middle of July to late August — will peak on the night of August 11 and 12, which is a Thursday night and Friday morning. But there’s a problem: There’ll be a full moon during the peak, and the rule of thumb is you need a dark sky to get a good look at most celestial events, meteor showers definitely included.
“Sadly, this year’s Perseids peak will see the worst possible circumstances for spotters,” NASA astronomer Bill Cooke, who leads the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a statement.
But looking up at night is almost always fun and rewarding. So here are some pointers:
For most people, seeing a meteor shower involves driving about forty miles from any city in order to escape from light pollution. If the only time you can cram that into your calendar is August 11 and the early morning of August 12, that’s fine! It’s almost always worth it to look up at the night sky.
Think of it this way: On any given summer night, with good visibility, you can usually see four to eight meteors per hour. During the peak of the Perseids when there’s no full moon, you can usually see some 50 to 100 per hour (though in recent years, that number has been declining). During the peak of the Perseids that coincides with the full moon, it’ll be more of a hunt, like any random summer night. When you’re lucky enough to see one, it’ll be that much more exciting.
And don’t look at your phone while you’re looking for meteors. It wrecks your night vision.
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the moon will rise roughly at the same time the sun is setting, and set when the sun is rising. That means your best shot at a dark, meteor-rich sky will be just before dawn, when the moon is dipping back down near the horizon. So the show’s over at 5:11 a.m. on Friday morning if you’re in Maine, and at 6:28 a.m. if you’re in Miami, and probably somewhere in between wherever you’re reading this (go here to find out your local moonrise time). At any rate, wake up super early — early enough to give your eyes 20 minutes to adjust to the dark before the sky starts to brighten. Or you can just stay up very, very late. Your choice.
They’re generally in the northeastern sky. But in my experience, during the peak, the Perseids are visible all over the sky, and leave long, bright streaks across a wide area, sometimes lingering for several seconds, so it’d be silly to say you should focus on one particular location. It would be even sillier to suggest you use a telescope, which would narrow your view even further. Just fill your vision with as much dark, moonless sky as you can at once.
What we call the Perseids are actually the result of Earth’s annual collision with a trail of space dust given off by a comet called 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle is a 16-mile-wide rock orbiting the sun in a crazy, grain-of-rice-shaped orbit that puts it in a pretty good position to eventually slam into Earth and do some damage, though probably not for some hundreds of thousands, or millions of years, and definitely not in the next 2,000 years. Swift-Tuttle last visited our solar system in 1992 and replenished our supply of Perseids along the way. The show has been getting less spectacular every year since.
Think of the cloud of dust as a very long swarm of bugs shaped like a loop, and we on Earth are sort of like the people in a giant car. Our atmosphere is the windshield, and every so often, the road our car is on puts us on a collision course with the bugs. The splatters on the windshield are the Perseids.
Staying with that bugs-on-the-windshield analogy, it just so happens that our car’s path collides with the bugs’ path in just about the same spot on the windshield every time. All those superheated rocks colliding with that one spot give one the false — though useful — impression that they originate from roughly that one area: the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky. That’s why Perseus is called the "radius" of the meteor shower, which is sometimes also called its "point of origin." But that’s misleading. For scale, the galaxies in the constellation Perseus are 240 light-years from Earth, so no, the Perseids which are only about 60 miles above the surface of the Earth when you see them, definitely do not actually originate in the constellation Perseus.
Possibly. Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society told The Philadelphia Inquirer that starting on August 1, stargazers would be able to see about ten Perseids per hour. As meteor activity ramps up, the moon will get brighter, meaning by the peak you may (and probably will) see fewer than ten per hour. The Perseids will completely cease by September 1, meaning there’s also plenty of time after the peak, when the moon is waning again, to try and see them.
The takeaway? This is one year when you shouldn’t think in terms of a "peak." The best time to see the Perseids is whenever you have the car packed up with a blanket and some hot cocoa.