The annual Perseid meteor shower — an August event that typically is one of the most prolific natural light shows of the year — promises to be even better this year, thanks to the absence of moonlight.
Meteor watching should be especially good because the shower peaks Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, nearly coinciding with the new moon. With no moon visible, skywatchers may see up to 100 shooting stars per hour at the shower’s peak — weather permitting, of course.
“Moonlight is the bane of meteor watchers because bright moonlight washes out faint meteors,” said Alan MacRobert, senior editor at Sky and Telescope magazine. “It is nature’s own light pollution.”
The Perseids are the result of comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years. As the comet flies through space it sheds bits of material from its nucleus, and each August the Earth passes through this trail of debris. Most of these particles are the size of a grain of sand, but as they burn up in the atmosphere they form streaks of light.
Skygazers should seek the darkest sky possible and look to the northeast or east. Don’t bother with a telescope or binoculars, which would limit your view of the sky. The only equipment needed to see a meteor shower: your eyes.
The peak time should be around 3 a.m. Thursday CDT, but viewers who go out late Wednesday evening likely will see some shooting stars.
Give your eyes at least 20 minutes to adjust to the dark. Avoid looking at cellphones or using flashlights.
“People ask me what direction to look and the answer is ‘up,’” MacRobert said. “Keep your eyes on whatever part of the sky is darkest — probably overhead.”
Although meteor showers occur through the year, the Perseids are often the brightest. In 2013 NASA declared the Perseid meteor shower the “Fireball Champion” because it had the most shooting stars that shone at least as brightly as Venus in the night sky.
The Perseids get their name because the meteors seem to radiate from the direction of the constellation Perseus.
As you are watching, keep in mind that people have been enjoying these late summer fireworks for centuries.
“Back in the medieval times the Perseids were called the tears of St. Lawrence because they are seen around the anniversary of the saint’s martyrdom,” MacRobert said.