dark sky meteor watching

There’s nothing quite like watching a good meteor shower. The handful of meteors you might see on a regular, clear night turn into dozens during a meteor shower’s peak. And right now, one of the best yearly meteor showers is underway.

The Perseid meteor shower officially kicked off on July 23, but you still have plenty of time to catch them. In fact, the peak isn’t expected until August 12. The pre-dawn hours on August 11 and 13 are also great times to check out the meteor shower. It’s also a great warm-up to this month’s total solar eclipse coming on August 21.

The Moon tries to crash the party

Several obstacles can stand in your way for viewing meteor showers. From city lights and cloud cover to the moon. And the moon will be a bit of an issue this month. It won’t completely wash out the sky, but it will slash the peak meteor rate by about half. Instead of 80/hour, we’ll be lucky to see 40 or 50.

The moon will be about three-quarters full when it rises shortly before the shower peaks. Its bright light will wash out the fainter meteors, but those aren’t the ones you’ll be looking for anyway.

Perseids can produce a few meteors you won’t forget. Fireballs and earthgrazers. You’ll know when you see a fireball. That ‘hey look a meteor’ turns into a ‘woah.’ Spotting earthgrazers will be tough, but at least you won’t have to lay outside in the middle of the night.

Perseids don’t normally make their presence known in the early evening, but when they do, they’re often earthgrazers. Instead of a blink and you’ll miss it meteor, you’ll be treated to a colorful meteor that lasts several seconds as it soars across the sky.

The key for spotting earthgrazers (that are part of the Perseids) is looking for them when the shower’s radiant point is close to the horizon. That’s early-to-mid evening. By midnight, the constellation Perseus (the meteor shower’s namesake) is above the horizon.

Perseid watching tips

Get away from city lights. I know, easier said than done sometimes. But we already have a pesky moon to deal with this go around. City lights combined with the moon will drown out all but the brightest fireballs. If you can, find a park away from the city center.

I’m lucky. I always knew there would be a perk to living in rural Alabama.

Get comfortable. You can’t just walk outside and expect to see meteors within the first few minutes. It takes 20-30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust in the dark. And then it’s a waiting game for the meteors. Don’t give up if you don’t see any in the first few minutes. They’ll come. The longer you wait and watch, the more you’ll see. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a few fireballs. And your patience will have paid off.

Just look up. Yeah, the radiant point is the Perseus constellation – but that’s not important. The important thing is you get to a spot where you can see as much of the sky as possible. Every Perseid meteor shower will appear to originate from a certain point, but they’ll be soaring all over the sky.

You might spot a meteor or two that isn’t coming from the Perseus constellation. Those tiny chunks of ice and rock are likely part of the Delta Aquarid meteor shower. A lesser known meteor shower that happens around the same time as Perseids.

Random Perseid facts

130,000 miles per hour. That’s how fast these comet pieces strike the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Comet pieces? Yep, every year in late July to late August, Earth cruises through the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. It’s pieces of this comet you’ll see over the next few weeks. And if we’re lucky, Earth will float into a clump of these pieces causing a meteor outburst. Last year, some observers saw peak meteor rates approach 150/hour.

Comet Swift-Tuttle. It takes the comet 133 years to complete an orbit around the Sun. With a 26 kilometer nucleus and its relatively close flybys of Earth, there was some concern about a potential future collision. Further study of the comet ruled out a collision with Earth. At least in a future any of us have to worry about. A collision is possible thousands of years down the line but isn’t likely based on studies of the comet’s orbit. Still, it is one of the biggest chunks of space rock to cross paths with Earth.

The good news is we don’t have to worry about a 26-kilometer comet hitting us anytime soon. Circle August 11, 12, and 13 on your calendar and cross your fingers for fireballs.


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