Get ready for some shooting stars—this weekend is the culmination of the annual Perseid meteor shower, the beloved astronomical event that sends bright streaks of light streaking across the night sky.
This year’s show should be fine, “because the moon basically won’t interfere.” Michelle NicholsDirector of Public Observation at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. “We can have different reasons why a meteor shower is better one year versus the next, and a lot of times that’s the phase of the moon.”
Since the waning crescent moon will be just a tiny sliver rising late, the sky will darken, creating the perfect backdrop for the meteor shower’s celestial fireworks.
In addition, the fact that the peak arrives at the weekend means that many people can stay up late or get up before dawn without the usual worry about having to go to work after losing sleep.
The Perseids occur every summer when a cloud of debris associated with a comet called Swift-Tuttle pierces Earth. The comet’s body parts are small and can be as small as a grain of sand. But when they hit the atmosphere at high speeds, “friction causes this material to heat up, and causes the air around it to glow,” Nichols says.
While the Perseid shower has technically been underway since mid-July, the largest number of meteors should be visible in the early hours before dawn on Sunday, August 13.
“If you’re outside in a dark sky, without a moon, you’re likely to see at least 50 to 60 per hour, during the last hour before dawn,” Robert Lunsfordwho works with the American Meteorite Society.
When it gets dark on Saturday night, August 12, he explains, the meteor source will be close to the northern horizon, “so a lot of the activity will be blocked by the horizon. As the night progresses, the meteor source will rise higher in the sky. It will be up just before dawn, and that is it.” The time when you will see the most activity.”
If you can’t view the sky during the peak, or if clouds are spoiling your perspective, you can also try on the days before and after, when showers are active but less intense.
The best viewing will be under clear skies that are not affected much by ambient light from cities and towns. To see incoming meteors, just go outside, sit in a nice chair, get comfortable, look halfway up into the sky and give your eyes at least 20 to 30 minutes to adjust to the dark, Lunsford says. There is no need to look in any particular direction or in any one place.
“Sometimes you’ll see fireballs of different colors trailing in the sky for up to a minute or so,” Lunsford says. “It’s very good.”
These fireballs are a big part of the draw Jackie Fahertyan astronomer at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and aims to watch the Perseids every year.
“One can come and shake your heart out,” says Faherty. “This, like, scares you.”
Sometimes people go outside, look up at the sky for a little while, and come away disappointed, she says. Part of the problem may be that eyes haven’t been completely adapted to the dark, but it’s also true that meteors don’t occur at a steady pace. For a while, nothing might happen, and suddenly a large array would shoot across the sky in quick succession.
“You can’t just be there for 10 minutes,” says Faherti. “You have to commit to being there.” “Really, 45 minutes to an hour is the minimum recommended. Have a glass of wine—or a bottle. Sit there for a while. Give heaven a chance to entertain you.”
“Web maven. Infuriatingly humble beer geek. Bacon fanatic. Typical creator. Music expert.”