Update Aug. 11: The Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight! Check out the cloud-cover forecast.
The pleasantly prolific Perseid meteor shower — a shooting-star show that reigns each August — may become an “outburst” this year, if astronomical predictions hold firm.
In any given year, when the dark heavens cooperate, the Perseids could peak at 50 to 100 shooting stars an hour. This year, the International Meteor Organization thinks that number may increase to about 150 meteors an hour. Other astronomers are calling for up to 200 meteors an hour.
Of course, nothing is a shooting-star slam dunk. Naval Observatory astronomer Geoff Chester tempers the excitement with caution, reminding all sky gazers that meteor showers can be unpredictable.
The Perseid meteors peak this Thursday evening into Friday morning, your best chances to catch the light show. The young, bright moon washes out many meteors Thursday evening, but chances get better after midnight: The waxing young moon sets at 1:09 a.m., welcoming heavenly darkness, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.
So here’s hoping for clear skies.
What are meteors? Comet trash. As ancient comets pass near Earth, they leave a dusty trail — and our planet speeds through the debris each year on its journey around the sun. When our planet crosses these paths, the little granular specs strike Earth’s atmosphere, and they light up and streak through our skies. For the Perseids, that comet is Swift-Tuttle, discovered independently in 1862 by astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace P. Tuttle, who happens to be buried in an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church, Va.
Watching the Perseids is easy: Go outside and look up. It’s that simple.
If you’re in a neighborhood or an urban location, get away from porch lights and street lights — find a dark area and let your eyes adjust to the night. At 100 to 200 meteors per hour, at peak, you’re not going to see every shooting star, but it should be persistent — such as one every few minutes.
Meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus, which now rises before 10 p.m. in the northeast. But looking at any part of the dark sky will do — because they seem to zip through the heavens from every direction.
Throughout this week until the peak, if you look up at the night sky, you could find a few Perseid meteors are already zipping across the evening heavens. After the peak, you can still find some stray shooting stars.
Got cloudy skies? No worries. NASA will feature a live broadcast of the Perseids overnight between Thursday and Friday and and between Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern. Slooh.com will also feature shower coverage Thursday, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern Time.