The Perseid meteor shower, one of the year’s most popular celestial events, peaks tonight.
The Perseids are often the most impressive meteor shower of the year for those in the Northern Hemisphere. They consistently provide a high rate of meteors, while the fact they occur in August usually means relatively good conditions for viewing in the global north.
The activity of the Perseids began on July 17 and will end on August 26, peaking on the night of August 11-12. This year, conditions are as “near to perfect as can be,” according to Sky & Telescope magazine, given that the moon will only be 13 percent full and will set around 10 p.m. local time, meaning skies will be dark until dawn.
What is the best time to see the Perseids tonight?
Meteor showers are celestial events during which numerous meteors—or “shooting stars”—appear in the night sky, seemingly originating from a single point known as the radiant.
The radiant of the Perseids is located in the constellation Perseus, which is named after a hero in ancient Greek mythology who was the son of Zeus and the mortal Danaë.
Meteors are the streaks of light we see when tiny pieces of space debris—ranging from about the size of a grain of sand to the size of a pea—burn up in the top of the Earth’s atmosphere while traveling at high speeds: around 130,000 miles per hour in the case of the Perseids.
According to the American Meteor Society, the best time to watch the Perseids, in theory, is just before the break of dawn when the radiant lies highest in a dark sky. This will be around 4 a.m. local time on the peak night.
At the time of highest activity, it may be possible to see a Perseid meteor every minute or so, depending on the weather in your location, according to Sky & Telescope.
The higher that the radiant rises in the sky, the more meteors you will be able to see. Thus, trying to view the Perseids before midnight is more difficult because most of the activity, when seen from the Northern Hemisphere, will occur below the horizon. This is due to the fact that the radiant will be low in the northern sky.
But the few meteors that do appear during this period are particularly impressive. Known as “earthgrazers,” these meteors simply skim the upper portions of the atmosphere, lasting much longer and traveling a significantly further distance than those that are visible during the morning hours.
For the best viewing, try and find head a dark location away from light pollution with a wide-open view of the sky if possible. You won’t need any special equipment, only your eyes.
“These ‘shooting stars’ can appear anywhere and everywhere in the sky—you don’t have to look toward the radiant to see them,” Diana Hannikainen, Sky & Telescope‘s observing editor, said. “So the best direction to watch is wherever your sky is darkest, usually straight up.”