Moonless nights will make the spectacle of the annual Perseid meteor shower even more scintillating this weekend for much of the world, and sky watchers are expecting a “great show.”
Once evening falls Sunday, expect to see a meteor, or a “shooting star,” streaking across the sky every few minutes. The meteor shower will peak overnight into Monday, with 70 meteors visible each hour, according to the Royal Astronomical Society. Hopefully, clear skies will allow for the best viewing.
And if your view is obscured by weather or clouds this weekend, the Perseids are visible for several nights afterward.
“The moonless sky this year means the viewing will be excellent, and the shower’s predicted peak is timed especially well for North America,” Diana Hannikainen, Sky & Telescope magazine’s observing editor, said in a statement. “Under a very dark sky, you might see up to one Perseid per minute late on Sunday night or after midnight on Monday morning.”
What are the Perseids?
The Perseids have presented a scintillating display for 2,000 years, according to NASA. The comet Swift-Tuttle orbits the sun once every 133 years, so every August, the Earth passes through the comet’s debris field. The ice and dust, accumulating over a thousand years, burn up in our atmosphere to create the meteor shower. The Perseids showcase more bright meteors than any other annual meteor shower.
The meteors can be traced to the Perseus constellation, from which they get their name, which will climb in the northeastern sky as the evening passes. From our perspective, the meteors all seem to come from a single point called the “radiant,” but that’s because they are moving parallel to each other.
When the “radiant” is highest in the sky, we’ll see the most meteors. But “Earthgrazer” meteors, which skim Earth’s atmosphere and showcase long, blazing tails, are visible earlier when the radiant is low above the horizon.
The meteors themselves are traveling at 132,000 miles per hour, which creates their vivid streaks of light. They can reach between 3,000 and 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit during this shower.
The comet itself will come extremely close to Earth in a “near-miss” in 2126.
How to watch
NASA scientists advise that although they can be seen any time after 10 p.m., the best time to spot a flurry of meteors will be during the darkest part of the night, in the early hours before dawn, from 11 p.m. to first light.
Patience is key. It can take up to 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark for optimal viewing. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but they look the brightest against the darkest sky, which is straight up.
Some meteors only have faint, quick streaks. Others are brighter and can appear to sail across our sky for several seconds, leaving a glowing smoke trail.
The best way to view the meteor shower is by sitting in a reclining lawn chair or lying on your back and looking up at the sky with a wide view. No special equipment is needed, but if you want the best view, it helps to be as far from artificial light as possible.
If you live in an urban area, you might want to take a drive to avoid city lights, which can make the meteor shower seem faint. Scientists from NASA also said that camping out in the country can triple the amount of visible meteors.
And don’t forget to grab your camera before you head out. Meteor showers are a great opportunity for time-lapse videos and long-exposure photography, allowing your shots of the night sky to turn into van Gogh-like paintings of this starry spectacle.
The Virtual Telescope Project will be streaming a view of the Perseid meteor shower on Sunday from the Castel Santa Maria in Italy’s Perugia province, where the community is restoring the 16th-century church that has been damaged by several earthquakes. NASA will also be streaming a view of the sky from the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook Page.