Looking for some terrific summertime memories? The Perseid meteor shower is for you. It will slingshot countless shooting stars across the heavens on the nights of Sunday and Monday, as it reaches its peak. The weather should also cooperate, at least at times, for a good chunk of the country.
The Perseid meteor shower is as beautiful as it is scientifically stunning. Debris left behind from the long-gone Swift-Tuttle comet will burn up in the atmosphere when the Earth runs into it — much like bugs spattering off a windshield when traveling down a highway. The result is a spectacular outburst of colorful light streaking across the sky.
At its peak, roughly 75 shooting stars will pass overhead every hour. Of course, you won’t get to see every single one, but with some active planning, patience and a bit of luck, you will likely get your own chance to wish upon a star.
Before delving into the how, why and where when it comes to watching, let’s take a quick glance at the sky forecast. August tends to be a great time to watch the sky as it’s among the least-cloudy months in the country as summer begins to wane. But this weekend, it looks like clouds may still mess with plans in some places.
The East Coast and South are likely to face the most tricky cloud-cover conditions Sunday night, as shown below. There are also hints of cloud gaps, and you only need a short period of those to get some great views! Clear skies are anticipated across much of the Midwest and into the central and northern Plains. It appears there will be at least partial views for most of the West. It’s a similar story for Monday night, with the cloud cover in the central United States all shifting east a bit, perhaps.
Looking beyond the weather forecast, a key to getting the most out of a meteor shower is finding the right place to enjoy the show.
The Perseids are known for their brilliant fireballs — meteors so bright they shine more intense than a planet such as Venus. Many will be much fainter — and will easily be outshone by urban light pollution. Moonlight won’t pose an issue because there will be a new moon Sunday, the first of the best nights for viewing.
There’s no doubt you’ll want to get as far away from city lights as possible to maximize your view. As a rule of thumb, the more stars you see every night when you look up, the more shooting stars you’ll be able to catch during a meteor shower.
Although this may seem straightforward, you’ll also need a place where you can properly view the sky. As an example, forested areas and/or locations cluttered with buildings will block most of the view — and cut back your chances of success just as much.
Unlike some meteor showers, there’s no specific region of the sky to look for the Perseids, although there is something of a point of origin.
Meteors will seem like they’re all coming from a single point in the sky called the “radiant.” This region is where the debris from the parent comet originates. Since this is coincident with the constellation Perseus, we call this shower the Perseids. The wider the view, the better your odds as there will be an equal distribution of shooting stars all across the sky. The most active time frame will be in the predawn hours between local midnight and 3 a.m., but impressive views are possible pretty much all night long.
While you’re meteor peeping, keep in mind that our eyes are finicky. Have you ever noticed that when you walk inside a dark room on a really bright day, it takes a few minutes before we can see anything? The photoreceptor cells in the back of our eyes take time to adjust to changing light, or lack of light. In the case of stargazing, that adjustment time is close to 20 minutes. Be patient! Settle in early. Keep your eyes off those bright phones!
In the end it’s the perfect time to unplug for an hour, lounging under the beautiful night sky. Prepare to share a moment with your loved ones while making memories that will last a lifetime.
Ian Livingston contributed to this post.
Correction: The original version of this article inaccurately stated: “Our pupils are like miniature camera lenses, and it takes time to adjust to changing light, or lack of light.” We were informed by a reader that it is photoreceptor cells in the back of eye that take time to adjust to light in a process known as “dark adaptation.” The pupils are more like camera apertures – they open and close fairly quickly.