The Perseids — the annual light show caused by a series of space dust particles streaking our atmosphere from mid-July through late August — will peak on the night of August 11-12, which is a Thursday night and a Friday morning. But there is a problem: There will be a full moon during the summit and the rule of thumb is that you need dark skies to see most celestial events well, definitely including meteor showers.
“Unfortunately, this year’s Perseid Summit will see the worst of circumstances for observers,” NASA astronomer Bill Cooke, who heads the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a statement.
But looking up at night is almost always fun and rewarding. So here are some pointers:
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How do I see the Perseids on a full moon?
To see a meteor shower, most people have to drive about forty miles from each city to escape light pollution. If you can only get that on your calendar for August 11th and the early morning of August 12th, that’s fine! It’s almost always worth looking at the night sky.
Think of it this way: On any summer night, when visibility is good, you can typically see four to eight meteors an hour. During the peak of the Perseids, when there is no full moon, you can typically see around 50 to 100 an hour (although that number has been declining in recent years). During the culmination of the Perseids, coinciding with the full moon, it will be more of a hunt, like any random summer night. If you are lucky enough to see one, it will be all the more exciting.
And don’t look at your phone while looking for meteors. It destroys your night vision.
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When should I look for the Perseids?
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the moon rises at about the same time as the sun sets and sets when the sun rises. That means you can best see a dark, meteor-rich sky just before sunrise, when the moon sets again near the horizon. So the show wraps up Friday morning at 5:11 a.m. if you’re in Maine and 6:28 a.m. if you’re in Miami, and probably somewhere in between wherever you’re reading this (go here to get your local moonrise time). Be sure to wake up very early—early enough to give your eyes 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness before the sky brightens. Or you just stay up very, very late. Your decision.
Where in the sky should I look to see the Perseids?
They are generally located in the northeast sky. But in my experience, the Perseids are visible across the sky during peak, leaving long, bright streaks across a wide area that sometimes linger for several seconds, so it would be silly to say that you should focus on one specific location. It would be even sillier to suggest you use a telescope, which would further narrow your view. Just fill your vision with as much dark, moonless sky as you can at once.
What are the Perseids anyway?
What we call the Perseids are actually the result of Earth’s annual collision with a trail of space dust emitted by a comet called 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle is a 16-mile-wide rock that orbits the Sun in a crazy, rice-grain-shaped orbit that puts it in a pretty good position to eventually hit Earth and do some damage, though probably not for a few hundred of Thousands or millions of years and definitely not in the next 2,000 years. Swift-Tuttle last visited our solar system in 1992, replenishing our supply of Perseids along the way. Since then, the show has become less spectacular every year.
Think of the dust cloud as a very long swarm of bugs shaped like a loop, and we on Earth are something like the people in a giant car. Our atmosphere is the windshield, and from time to time the road our car is driving on puts us on a collision course with the bugs. The splashes on the windshield are the Perseids.
Sticking with that bugs-on-the-windshield analogy, it just so happens that our car’s path collides with the bugs’ path at roughly the same spot on the windshield every time. All those superheated rocks colliding with that one point give the false – albeit useful – impression that they’re from roughly that one area: the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky. This is why Perseus is referred to as the “radius” of the meteor shower, which is sometimes referred to as the “point of origin.” But that is misleading. For scale, the galaxies in the Perseus constellation are 240 light-years from Earth, so no, the Perseids, which are only about 60 miles above Earth’s surface when you see them, are definitely not actually from the Perseus constellation.
Are there better nights to see the Perseids?
Possibly. narrated by Robert Lunsford of the American Meteor Society The Philadelphia investigator that stargazers could see about ten Perseids per hour from August 1st. As meteor activity increases, the moon will get brighter, meaning you may (and likely) be seeing fewer than 10 an hour at its peak. The Perseids will fully cease by September 1st, meaning there will be plenty of time even after the peak when the moon wanes again to try and see them.
take that away? This is a year not to think of a “high”. The best time to see the Perseids is after you’ve packed the car with a blanket and hot cocoa.