On any given night, far from bright city lights, there’s a chance that 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 a multitude of flares as meteor showers burst in the darkness.
The next event is the Perseids, which lasts until about Sept. 1 but reaches its peak over the weekend, from Saturday, Aug. 12, into Sunday, Aug. 13.
Meteor showers occur when our planet runs into the debris fields left behind by icy comets or rocky asteroids going around the sun. These small particles burn up in the atmosphere, leading to blazing trails of light. The regularity of orbital mechanics means that any given meteor shower happens at roughly the same time each year, with the changing phases of the bright moon being the main variable affecting their visibility.
Warm summer nights and high rates of fireballs make the Perseids one of the most popular showers of the year. Originating from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which comes back often through the inner solar system, the Perseids frequently put on a great show. The shower is visible only in the Northern Hemisphere, in latitudes below 60 degrees north.
This year, the moon will be a slim crescent in the sky, and our planet will be running into a trail of dust that Swift-Tuttle released in 68 B.C., meaning that conditions should be good for the shower. Nobody knows exactly how many meteors may be seen, though some predict around 100 per hour under dark skies. A NASA fireball network started 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 to the countryside and get as far from artificial light sources as possible. People in rural areas may have the luxury of just stepping outside. But city-dwellers have options, too.
Many cities have an astronomical society that maintains a dedicated dark sky area. “I would suggest contacting them and finding out where they have their location,” Robert Lunsford, the secretary general of the International Meteor Organization, said in an interview with The New York Times in 2022.
Meteor showers are usually best viewed when the sky is darkest, after midnight but before sunrise. To see as many meteors as possible, wait 30 to 45 minutes after you get to your viewing location. That will allow your eyes to adjust to the dark. Then lie back and take in a large swath of the night sky. Clear nights, higher altitudes and times when the moon is slim or absent are best. Mr. Lunsford suggested a good rule of thumb: “The more stars you can see, the more meteors you can see.”
Binoculars or telescopes aren’t necessary for meteor showers, and in fact will limit your view.
How meteor showers form
Each shower peaks on a certain date when Earth is plowing into the densest portion of the debris field, though in some cases many meteors can still be seen before or after that specific night.
A shower is named for a constellation in the part of the sky it appears to streak from. But there’s no need to be perfectly versed in every detail of the celestial sphere. Meteors should be visible all over the sky during any given shower.