The annual Perseid meteor shower will peak this week, specifically on Tuesday, August 11 through Wednesday, August 12, 2020, though any night this week is a great one for seeing “shooting stars.”
Are you confident about finding yourself some Perseids? Or would you struggle to know what to do, and where to look, once you’re outside?
Here’s exactly how, when and where to see “shooting stars”—and even spectacular “earth-grazers”—from the year’s most popular meteor shower in three easy steps:
1 – Get outside as night falls on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday
Technically speaking, the Perseids “peak”—and issue forth 100 “shooting stars” per hour—about an hour before dawn on Wednesday, August 12.
You’re probably not going to be outside at that time, and anyway, the Moon will be “up” by then, big and bright and light-polluting.
Besides, according to the American Meteor Society, watch during the evening hours right after dark and although the number of “shooting stars” will be greatly reduced from 100, you have a chance to see the truly memorable long-lasting “earthgrazers.”
“They just skim the upper regions of the atmosphere and will last much longer than Perseids seen during the morning hours,” writes Bob Lunsford at the AMS. “Since they last longer they also will travel a much longer distance across the sky.”
Here’s a great visual from Sky & Telescope magazine that shows you where the “shooting stars” will appear to be streaking from:
2 – Look east or west, half-way up the night sky
Although the “radiant” of the Perseids is the constellation of Perseus, which is rising in the northeastern night sky come nightfall in mid-August, do not stare at Perseus all night.
“Shooting stars” can appear at any time of night in any part of the sky, though the AMS say that “earthgrazing” Perseids will likely be seen low in the east or west, traveling north to south.
However, you may see an “earthgrazer” above your head for as long as a few seconds—they’re rare, but utterly unforgettable.
They’re also the most impactful if you’re watching under light-polluted skies.
So although the Moon means you won’t see 100 per hour, it does mean you can go to bed early hopefully having seen a few spectacular “earthgrazers.”
However, don’t get too demanding … the night sky is not like that.
3 – Be patient and ‘binge-watch’ meteors
Put your smartphone down. Leave any binoculars alone, and don’t touch your telescope. All gadgets are useless for shooting star-gazing.
There’s only one thing you really need. “The one absolute necessity is patience,” said Dr. Jackie Faherty, Senior Scientist and Senior Education Manager jointly in the Department of Astrophysics and the Department of Education at the American Museum of Natural History. “People expect to walk outside or look out their window and just see the sky alight with meteors flying around—that is just not how it works.”
“Even when we get numbers like 60 to 80 an hour, that’s an average, so the longer you wait the better chance you have of catching an absolutely core-shaking fireball that can run across your sky,” she said. “You just can’t predict when they’re going to happen.”
So go outside and wait 15 minutes for your eyes to dark-adapt, get yourself to somewhere that you can see as much of the night sky as possible, and where there are no artificial lights in your direct line of sight. The roof of an apartment block in a city is good.
“As somebody that’s lived in metropolitan area that’s how I’ve watched them for the majority of my adult life—I just go up to a roof and I sit there and watch, and I wait two to three hours,” said Faherty. “Think of it like a Netflix serial—you’re out binge-watching meteors for hours, not quickly running outside to take a look.
Specks of dust
While you’re outside dedicated your evening to seeing Perseids, just remember the science. “We call them shooting stars when we’re being cute around children,” said Faherty. “But they’re really just specks of dust that are burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.”
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.