On any given night, away from the bright city lights, there’s a chance you’ll see a beautiful streak shoot across the sky as a meteor flies overhead. But on special dates scattered throughout the year, skywatchers can catch plenty of flares as meteor showers explode into the darkness.
The next event is the Perseids, which will last until the Septs. 1 but reached its peak over the weekend, from Saturday, Aug. 12, to Sunday, Aug. 13.
Meteor showers occur when our planet runs into debris fields left behind by icy comets or rocky asteroids orbiting the sun. These tiny particles burn up in the atmosphere, leading to blazing trails of light. The regularity of orbital mechanics means that any given meteor shower occurs at roughly the same time each year, with changes in the phases of the bright moon being the main variable affecting their visibility.
Hot summer nights and high rates of fireballs make the Perseids one of the most famous showers of the year. Originating from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which often returns through the inner solar system, the Perseids often put on a spectacular show. The shower can only be seen in the Northern Hemisphere, at latitudes below 60 degrees north.
This year, the moon will be a thin crescent in the sky, and our planet will run on a dust trail released by Swift-Tuttle in 68 BC, meaning conditions should be good for a shower. No one knows exactly how many meteors can be seen, although some predict about 100 per hour under dark skies. A NASA fireball network began detecting Perseid meteors on July 26, so your prospects may be good.
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How to see a shower
The best practice is to head out into the countryside and get as far away from artificial light sources as possible. Rural people can have the luxury of just stepping outside. But city dwellers have options too.
Many cities have astronomical societies that maintain a dedicated dark spot in the sky. “I suggest contacting them and finding out where they are located,” said Robert Lunsford, the secretary general of the International Meteor Organization, in an interview with The New York Times in 2022.
Meteor showers are usually best seen when the sky is darkest, after midnight but before sunrise. To see as many meteors as possible, wait 30 to 45 minutes after you arrive at your viewing location. This will allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Then lie down and take in a large portion of the night sky. Clear nights, higher altitudes and times when the moon is slim or absent are best. Mr. suggested Lunsford has a good rule of thumb: “The more stars you see, the more meteors you see.”
Binoculars or telescopes are not necessary for the meteor shower, and will in fact limit your view.
How meteor showers form
Each shower peaks on a specific date when Earth plows through the thickest part of the debris field, though in some cases many meteors will still be visible before or after that particular night.
A shower is named for a constellation in the part of the sky from which it appears to originate. But there is no need to be an absolute expert in every detail of the celestial sphere. Meteors should be visible across the sky during any given shower.