Get ready: The Perseid meteor shower peaks on Thursday (Aug. 12), and it has the potential to put on a good show.
Unlike in 2020, when the annual meteor shower coincided with a quarter moon, this year's peak will occur just four days after the new moon. That means skywatchers will have dark skies under which to view up to 50 to 75 meteors per hour.
According to EarthSky magazine, the best time for meteor-viewing will be in the early morning hours of Aug. 11, 12 and 13, after the constellation Perseus has risen. If you're more of a night owl than a morning dove, though, look skyward after 10 p.m. local time on any of these nights and you may get lucky. Though the most numerous meteors will streak through the sky on Aug. 12 between 3 p.m to 6 p.m. EDT (1900-2200 GMT), the meteor shower actually lasts from July 25 to Aug. 18, and shooting stars are periodically visible throughout this period.
Getting to know the Perseids
The Perseids are caused by debris from the tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle, which swings around the sun every 130 years or so. Each July and August, Earth orbits through the debris field left behind by the planetary visitor. When the bits of ice, rock and rubble hit the atmosphere, which they do at a speed of 37 miles per second (59 km/s), they burn up. The Perseids are known for leaving streaks of light and color behind them as they zoom through the atmosphere, according to NASA. They also sometimes produce long, bright fireballs, which occur when larger bits of debris run up against the friction of the atmosphere.
Most pieces of debris that create Perseid meteors are the size of sand grains, with fireball-producing fragments no bigger than a marble, meteorologist and amateur astronomer Joe Rao said on Space.com. Thus, it's rare for the Perseids to produce a meteorite, or a fragment of space rock that actually lands on Earth.
The meteor shower gets its name from the constellation near which the meteors seem to arise, Perseus.
Viewing tips for the Perseids
To watch the Perseids, find a dark spot away from city lights. The meteors are visible across the night sky (and actually are harder to see closer to their radiant point), so don't stare right at Perseus. Let your eyes adjust for 20 minutes for maximum viewing. You'll catch more faint meteors the longer you let your eyes get used to the dark. The moon will set around 10:30 p.m. local time on Aug. 12, but if you are trying to skygaze while the moon is up, locate yourself so that something like a building or a tree sits between you and the moon so its light doesn't interfere with your view.
Get comfortable on a reclining lawn chair or picnic blanket. Midnight to dawn hours are the most promising for viewing, due to the angle of the meteors relative to Earth, but don't rule out early and late evening, either. According to EarthSky, the evening hours can be the best time to see an earthgrazer meteor, or a low, slow meteor that appears to meander across the horizon.
And that's all there is to it. Telescopes and binoculars will only restrict your field of view, so the only equipment you need is a comfortable seating arrangement and perhaps a warm drink.
"All you've got to do is go outside, find a nice dark spot, lie flat on your back and look up," Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, told Live Science in 2016. "You don't want binoculars. You don't want a telescope. You just use your eyes."
Originally published on Live Science