Perseid Meteor Shower Guide

Have you ever made a wish upon a falling star? Many of us have heard this famous phrase since childhood. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, the innocent dreamers within us may have believed that a falling star could conjure up forces to make our wishes come true, but only if we made our wish before the "star" vanished from sight.  And although the power of falling stars is a myth, many people have reported that their wishes did come true.

Falling stars, also known as "shooting stars," have been mesmerizing stargazers for centuries. They are not actually stars but streaks of light that can suddenly appear anywhere in the night sky. Falling stars are made of tiny bits of dust and rock called meteoroids. When this material enters Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour, it immediately burns up. Astronomers call the blazing material streaking across the sky a meteor. Most are faint and last for less than a second, while some "fireballs" can light up the sky (magnitude -4) and last for several seconds. Meteors can be seen on any given night, but they are best seen on moonless nights, far away from city lights. 

Several times during the year and throughout the course of several nights, Earth encounters many swarms of meteoroids at once, called meteor showers. These showers take place annually, are predictable, and appear to radiate from the same general area of the sky.

Each meteor shower is named for the constellation where most of its meteors appear to originate—the Geminids (Gemini), Perseids (Perseus), and so on. When you're observing a meteor shower, locate its namesake constellation as a good starting point for your observations.

Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through a trail of interplanetary debris left over from past comets or asteroids making their journeys around the Sun. Some years, meteor showers can put on fine displays of several hundred or more shooting stars per hour, while other years can produce less-than-average shows. However, on rare occasions, some meteor showers can treat us to an incredible display of thousands of shooting stars over a brief period. This is known as a meteor storm. The Leonids meteor storm of 1966 produced thousands of shooting stars per minute that fell through the Earth's atmosphere during a brief 15-minute window. Those fortunate to have witnessed this storm likened it to falling rain. So yes, when it rains, it can sometimes pour!

 

 

Summer's Best Meteor Shower

 

The Perseid meteor shower is one of the best-known meteor showers and never fails to put on an excellent show of an average rate of 50-75 meteors per hour or more. However, it can put on a fantastic display of several hundred per hour, as was the case back in 1993 when the rate topped at 300 meteors per hour. Because this shower takes place in mid-summer, it is often widely observed, as many families are on summer break and camp in dark skies. 

In 2021, the Perseids are active from July 17 to August 24. It reaches its peak on the night of August 12 and the morning of August 13. The moon will be a waxing crescent phase during the evening but will set by the peak hours after midnight, so there will be no moonlight distractions to obscure fainter meteors. Scientists are predicting 150 to 200 meteors may be visible!

The Perseid meteor shower occurs as the Earth passes through debris left behind from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. It was the first meteor shower linked to a comet. The shower's radiant will appear to be coming from the constellation Perseus, but they may appear in any part of the sky. There may be a high proportion of vapor trails.

 


Top 10 Viewing Tips

 

Tip #1

Set your alarm clock to wake up around midnight. Bright meteors are often best seen after midnight and into the early morning hours when the radiant is at its highest point. The sky directly overhead is facing the same direction that Earth travels around the Sun. Earth's orbital speed adds a boost to the rate at which the particles hit the atmosphere, making them burn hotter and, therefore, brighter. So, it is best not to call it quits after an evening of viewing. Stay out past midnight for the best chance at seeing bright meteors.

Tip #2 Look for vapor trails. Some of the brighter meteors may leave behind a smoky trail or train in their wakes that may last for several seconds. Larger debris may create an extremely bright fireball that can light up the sky. Such a fireball is called a bolide.

Tip #3 Look for different colors as the meteors streak across the sky. Colors depend on the composition of metals within the meteors and the speed at which they enter the atmosphere.
Tip #4 Many of the best meteor showers occur from August to December, so be prepared to dress warmly (in layers), lay down on a blanket, or use a lawn chair that supports your neck. Believe us; you do not want to tilt your head back for long periods without some form of neck support. And do not forget the bug spray! Mosquitoes can ruin a meteor shower observing session–especially the Perseids, which takes place each summer.
Tip #5 Because meteors can appear anywhere over a large swath of sky, using a telescope is fruitless due to its narrow field of view. A binocular can be helpful if you are pointing it in the right section of the sky at the right time. But for best results, use your own unaided eyes.
Tip #6 Plan a trip outside of the city, so your eyes will be dark-adapted to see more of the fainter meteors. If you observe from the city, give your eyes at least 20 minutes to dark adapt. Of course, we still recommend bringing your telescope along, though! Take a break from hunting meteors and observe a few of your favorite celestial objects under pristine dark skies.
Tip #7 Capture meteor streaks by using a DSLR camera with a wide-angle lens and attached to a tripod. Leave the camera shutter open for an extended period and see what you can capture.
Tip #8 Count the number of meteors you see for a given period. Because some shooting stars can occur in the blink of an eye, the chances are good that someone else in your viewing party may spot some that you missed.
Tip #9 Be patient. Do not expect to see shooting stars raining down every few seconds. It may take quite a while before you spot your first meteor. Relax and keep looking up. Your chance of spotting several bright meteors throughout the night is much higher than the person who chooses to stay in bed.
Tip #10 Another rewarding hobby for meteor shower lovers is collecting meteorites– a meteor that survives its passage through the Earth's atmosphere and strikes the ground. You can find meteorites at local rock shops or online. Or, if you're adventurous, go with a guide to a remote desert location where meteorites can be found sitting on the surface after a shower. Some of these rocks or metallic balls can be quite large—and billions of years old!

 

 

Final Thoughts

The best way to experience the Perseid meteor shower is to head into a darker rural area far away from light pollution and just lay back and wait for the occasional burst of light. Patience will pay off as you begin to see stars lose their "adhesiveness" and begin to fall and quickly become absorbed by the black sky. Suppose you are lucky to be looking up at the right time. In that case, you might even see a bright, colorful fireball piercing the atmosphere that will surely elicit loud cheers in unison from fellow meteor shower observers. Nothing is more exciting than being with others who share the same passion and curiosity as you, so do not miss this annual summer stargazing event! Enjoy the show and remember that you have nothing to lose if you choose to wish upon a falling star or two.