The famous Perseid Meteor Shower is in full swing this week, reaching an especially high peak this year. Normally in the second week of August, the Perseids steadily build up to a 100 meteor per hour peak night but this year that peak has DOUBLED to 200 meteors per hour putting those 10-20 meteor per hour peaks of other showers to shame. This outburst is set to occur on an unknown hour around the evening of August 11th to the morning off August 12th. However, if you happen to be busy that day or have a troubling weather forecast, the Perseids are still putting out a great show from today until the morning of the 12th.
WHEN is it?
The Perseids technically started July 17th and last until August 24th. However, the Perseids are famous for their strong peak that starts building up the second week of August until its grand ending on the morning of August 12th. You can spot the most Perseids during the predawn hours but if you are not an early riser you can also try anytime after midnight. The moon sets at about 1:00am so you don’t need to worry about that light washing out meteors. This year’s Perseids are special though in that there is a burst happening at some point on the night of the 11th/morning of the 12th. NASA released its predictions which show varying times from 22:30 the 11th to 13:00 the 12th GMT (which is from 6:30 pm the 11th to 9:00 am the 12th EDT). You pretty much have the entire night/morning to be on the lookout so make sure you bring a good friend with you (or one you don’t mind being stuck with for hours on end).
WHERE should you look?
If you are able to watch the shower during the predawn hours from 3:00 am to twilight, you don’t need to worry about this part as the constellation will be overhead. But if you are like me and rather check out showers during more reasonable times, you will need to know the general direction the meteors are radiating from. The Perseids, like many other meteor showers, are named after the constellation they originate from: Perseus (this means if you were to trace every streak backwards they would all point towards this constellation). So from about midnight to 3:00 am it will be helpful to know in which direction of the sky to look. Now if you are not that confident with constellations, you can use an app (like the one I suggested). Search for the constellation Perseus and use the app to figure out where the constellation is. You can even figure out when it rises and sets. If you use the app I do, make sure you turn on ‘sky object trajectories’ and use that as a guide for where the star (or constellation) will be at a certain time. It should be on automatically but in case it is not, it is the button on the upper right of the settings (as shown on the right). Remember to look around; these meteors don’t stay too close to their radiant point and it can get frustrating focusing on one place for too long. You can also try to find earthgrazers in the early hours of the shower which look like stones skipping across the horizon.
WHAT are the meteors made of?
Similar to most meteor showers, the Perseid meteors are remnants of a comet that has crossed Earth’s path. These remnants are from comet Swift-Tuttle, a comet that only makes its way by us once every 133 years. The remnants generally stay in the same location of Earth’s orbit, so Earth comes crashing into these remnants every year; however, this year Jupiter gave them a little nudge pushing some of them more directly into Earth’s orbit. This is what is causing the exceptionally large number of Perseids during the outburst. Jupiter is such a massive planet that it isn’t uncommon for its gravity to influence comets, asteroids, and satellites orbits by pushing and pulling them in one direction or another.
To watch a meteor shower, it is best to be in a dark location; you can find the darkest places by you in my light pollution guide. It can take up to 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness so be patient! The experience will just get better the longer you are outside. Don’t forget bug spray!
If the weather isn’t looking great or you are not able to go outside, there are a couple of live streams that will be covering the meteor shower. Slooh’s live stream starts at 8:00 pm EDT on August 11th (00:00 GMT 12/8); the great thing about Slooh is that they have multiple telescopes in different parts of the world so weather isn’t much of an issue and they have narrated portions so you can learn about the shower from the experts themselves while searching for meteors. NASA is hosting a live stream too from NASA Marshall’s telescope. This program begins at 10:00pm EDT on August 11th (02:00 GMT 12/8) but the constellation won’t be overhead until about 4:00 am EST August 12th (08:00 GMT 12/8). Since they are only broadcasting from one location, overcast can inhibit star gazing so proceed with caution. This telescope is home to some amazing images of meteors (as shown below) so it is definitely worth checking out.