Take a break from Netflix and put your smartphone away. The year’s best meteor shower is set to peak late tonight and in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Before I dive into some tips for viewing the Perseid Meteor Shower, here’s some background on what is setting up to be a fantastic show tonight.
The streaking meteors you will see tonight originated from the Comet Swift-Tuttle. A stream of debris, known as the Perseid cloud, stretches along the orbit of the comet as it makes its 133-year journey around the sun.
Comet Swift-Tuttle is huge. Its nucleus is 16 miles across. That puts it at more than twice the size of the impact object many believe killed the dinosaurs.
Alright, let’s dive into some tips for viewing tonight’s show.
Where to Look
Head outside after 10:00 p.m, grab a lawn chair or blanket and face northeast. If you’re lying down, make sure your feet are pointed northeast. You’re looking for the constellation Perseus. Here’s a handy image that should help you out. Spotting Pleiades will probably be your best bet. The cluster, also called Seven Sisters, is easy to find.
When to Look
Any time after 10:00 p.m. local time will work. If you want the most bang for your buck, grab a nap. The peak hour is at 4 a.m. ET or 1 a.m. PT. If you’re away from city lights, you can see as many as 100 Perseids per hour.
Also, don’t get disappointed if you don’t see meteors right away. Your eyes need about 30 minutes to fully adjust to the dark. Just keep that smartphone in your pocket.
Get Away from the City
Light is the enemy tonight. Get away from it if you can. Find a park or a wide open field. Don’t expect to see anywhere near the peak rate of meteors if you stay in the city.
Don’t just walk outside and start looking up. Your neck won’t appreciate it in the morning. Grab an adjustable lawn chair or a couple of blankets.
Take a flashlight with you to get to your stargazing spot. But, don’t turn it on once you’re comfortable. If you can, pick up a red flashlight tonight. The red lens will preserve your eyes’ sensitivity to faint light.
Look for earthgrazers
The peak hour is in the pre-dawn hours, but try heading out shortly after dark. Keep your eyes trained to the horizon towards the northeast and you might spot an earthgrazer. An earthgrazer appears as a slow-moving, long-lasting meteor that moves horizontally across the sky.
Get lucky and spot a fireball
If you spend enough time outside tonight, you might just see a fireball. You’ll know it when you see it. Regular meteors will have you saying ‘woah.’ Fireballs will have you and your friends exclaiming, “holy s**t, did you see that?”
Taking pictures of the Perseids
If you’re trying to take pictures of meteors, you’re going to need two things. A tripod. And a camera capable of long exposures. Get your camera pointed towards the Perseus constellation and set your exposure times for 5 seconds or longer. I would go longer.
Perseids are known for being extremely bright, but also extremely fast.
Capturing meteors on camera is going to require a lot of trial and error. You’ll need to find the exposure that works best for your location. Long exposures won’t work in light-polluted skies. The light from the city will wash out the sky. Short exposures should work better. Ideally, you’ll be in a rural area with dark skies.
Weather shouldn’t be an issue for many of you in the U.S. If clouds do get in the way tonight, you can learn more about the meteor shower via NASA TV. They’ll be hosting a live program starting at 10 p.m. ET tonight and lasting until 2 a.m. ET. Meteor experts Bill Cooke, Danielle Moster and Rhiannon Blaauw will be on hand to answer any Perseid questions you might have.
Featured image credit: Fred Bruenjes (via NASA)