Those hoping to enjoy the spectacle will be contending with a third-quarter moon, which will outshine some of the fainter shooting stars. But the Perseids are rich in fireballs — or meteors brighter than the planet Venus — which will still triumph over the moon’s stubborn whitewash.
No matter where you reside in the Lower 48, you have a chance to catch some of the meteors — weather permitting. There is no specific place in the sky to look, either. Simply find a clear, dark location, allow your eyes to adjust, look up and enjoy the show.
In some parts of the country, skies look to cooperate. But broad thunderstorm systems known as “mesoscale convective complexes” could be problematic on the Plains. Cloud cover ahead of each system may obscure the view, but clear, dry air on the back side will make for a clear, stunning show. Predicting where each storm system will be is tricky.
Onshore flow and a veil of wispy clouds may not blot out the moonlight in the Pacific Northwest, but it will shroud most of the stars and meteors from view.
Clouds and a few storms could also bubble up from the Great Basin of Nevada to the Magic Valley of southern Idaho, as well as in northern Utah and western Wyoming.
There could also be some storms along the Gulf Coast, parts of the Ohio Valley, and perhaps clipping northern New England.
In between, thunderstorm activity may be more sporadic.
Where do meteors come from?
Meteors will be most numerous during the predawn hours. That’s when the constellation Perseus, from which the meteors will appear to emanate, will be highest in the sky. That point is called the “radiant.” But the best shooting stars with the longest tails are usually found perpendicular to the radiant.
Don’t get too bogged down in terminology or finding a “perfect spot,” though. Anywhere in the sky will suffice, with greater prospects away from the luminance of the moon.
Meteor showers occur when Earth plows through a stream of debris left in the wake of a comet or asteroid. Much like driving through a swarm of bugs on the highway, Earth intercepts a spattering of interstellar pebbles and space rocks during its annual orbit. In the case of the Perseids, those tiny stones come from the long-ago passage of comet Swift-Tuttle.
Instead of leaving behind a nasty smear on glass, these particulates burn up in our outer atmosphere about 60 miles high, leaving behind a streak of light. Their enormous speed — about 36 miles per second — generates enormous friction when they encounter gas molecules on the fringes of the atmosphere. That heats them up to the point of combustion, producing a magnificent trail of color.
Where do meteors’ colors come from?
When a meteor burns up, the elemental compounds it contains produce light. The Perseids are rich in sodium, accounting for their yellowish color. Some meteors also contain magnesium, iron, carbon and silicon.
Sometimes a glowing trail lingers for a few moments immediately afterward. That’s where a small cushion of air was compressed ahead of the arriving meteor. Compression causes heating, and the air can become ionized and produce light. The trails are usually dense and can be used to reflect radio waves. That’s how astronomers are able to “hear” meteors from Earth.
How to enjoy the show
If you’re hoping to enjoy the shooting stars, head to a clear, dark location away from city lights. Beaches, ballfields and parks are ideal spots. Having a wide-open, panoramic view of the sky is key.
If the weather ends up cloudy Tuesday night, don’t fret. Wednesday evening will also feature meteors, and you may even catch a few stragglers Thursday. In fact, a sporadic meteor or two per hour is typical throughout much of August, thanks to a comparatively wide debris stream with plenty of material on its periphery.
The Quadrantids in January, meanwhile, have a peak that lasts only a few hours.
Not all of the shooting stars you will see this week are Perseids. The Southern Delta Aquariids, Kappa Cygnids, and Piscis Austrinids are minor meteor showers that may spit out a shooting star or two per hour. You can tell them apart from Perseids because their shooting stars would be traveling a different direction in the sky, or possess a different speed or color.
You may also catch Jupiter and Saturn in the southwest sky. Jupiter will be especially bright.
So if you’re looking for a fun and meaningful, socially distant activity to share with friends and loved ones, try your luck chasing shooting stars. You may just get to make a wish.