Metro

David Epstein

How to watch the Perseid meteor shower this weekend

A Perseid meteor streaked across the sky in Norfolk.
MATT CAMPBELL/European Pressphoto Agency/File 2015
A Perseid meteor streaked across the sky in Norfolk.

Each August, what many consider the most anticipated meteor shower of the year occurs. While the shower is an annual occurrence, the results vary from year to year. Last year, 2016, happened to be a fantastic year for the Perseids.

During the early morning hours of Aug. 12, 2016, in the Caribbean, the Sociedad de Astronomía del Caribe reported what is called an outburst of meteors. This is something all sky watchers hope for when viewing a meteor shower. According the report, they saw 506 Perseid meteors in a period of 4.75 hours and by some counts 150 meteors in just 20 minutes!

Last year was forecast to be a banner year, but this year should be more typical. We can’t know exactly what this August will bring, but it’s always worth spending an hour or two during the peak of the meteor shower to look up.

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This year, the peak of the Perseids will occur in the predawn hours of Aug. 11, 12, and 13. It’s unlikely you’ll have the same weather conditions all three nights in much of the country, so pick the night with the clearest skies in the forecast.

Why is this called the Perseid meteor shower?

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If you followed all the Perseid meteors backward, they all seem to come from the constellation Perseus. This is just an illusion, but this is why this meteor shower is named in the honor of that constellation.

NASA

The Perseid meteor shower is a result of the Earth moving through the trail of dust and debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle. Comets are often referred to as dirty snowballs; as they hurl through space, they leave a wake of debris behind them. As this debris — most of which is about the size of a grain of sand — hits Earth’s atmosphere and burns up, it creates those streaks of light we call shooting stars or meteors. These pieces of debris, which move at 37 miles per second, vary in density from year to year. That’s why the Perseid show is better in some years than others.

Clear, dark skies are needed

In order to see the Perseids, you need to get to the darkest place possible, then look up. Allow about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust. The darker the sky, the better the viewing. Have patience: The meteors tend to come in bursts, not in evenly spaced increments.

The moon will be a factor this year. Although it’s just past full, the light will inhibit some of the meteors from being seen clearly.

This story has been updated with a more recent forecast.