Look to the skies Sunday and Monday night – or better yet, super early Monday and Tuesday morning – for what National Geographic says should be “the best celestial fireworks show of the year.”
Each year in August, the Earth passes through a cloud of debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet, resulting in a spectacular show for Northern Hemisphere residents called the Perseid meteor shower. The prolific shower has been known to produce 60, 70 or even 100 visible “shooting stars” per hour.
“Get out of the city and the lights to give yourself a chance to see them,” said Astronomy magazine’s Michael Bakich. “There will be a dozen ‘ooh’ moments in that hour. Ones where everyone will say, ‘Did you see that?’”
And with the Perseids, people are particularly likely to see spectacular meteors called fireballs that are as bright or brighter than the planets Jupiter or Venus, NASA says.
“As the Earth passes through the dust trail of comets, it encounters debris – some of which can be the size of grapefruit or larger – which [then] can cause fireballs,” said Raminder Singh Samra, resident astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“The chances of seeing fireballs always increase when there is a strong meteor shower like this one,” he added.
In fact, NASA released counts of all fireballs seen by a camera network over the U.S. since 2008, and with 568 such blazes in the last five years, the Perseid shower is by far the most prolific.
And with a waxing crescent moon setting early this year, thus allowing even fainter meteors to be seen, expectations for celestial “fireworks” are particularly high.
The best times for North Americans and Europeans to see the Perseids will be between 1 a.m. and dawn on Monday, Aug. 12, then again later after local nightfall, going into Tuesday morning.
“Wherever you are, expect meteor shower activity to pick up in your local pre-dawn hours,” said Samra. “This is due to the side of the Earth that’s rotating toward the sun, scooping up more debris from the comet debris trail.”
Best of all, there’s no need for telescopes or binoculars, because the meteors can be seen all over the sky. Simply lie on your back and look up.
But the best place to look is near the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, from which most of the meteors will appear to originate. In fact, that’s how the meteor shower gets its name, “Perseids” being derived from the Greek for “sons of Perseus.”
To get the best view, find somewhere away from city lights, where the sky is dark and stars readily visible.
“The Milky Way is often a good indicator if you are in a dark site,” said Samra. “If you can easily see the Milky Way above your head, then the observing site is dark enough.”