The Perseid meteor shower is set to peak in the latter half of this week, putting on what is perhaps one of the most spectacular natural light shows of the year. If you find a good spot to watch, you’ll be treated to a steady stream of meteors streaking across the sky as they disintegrate upon entry into Earth’s atmosphere.
Getting the best view can be a little more complicated than just looking up when the sky falls dark. Here are some tips for making the most of your celestial watching experience.
Look at the right time
The Perseid meteor shower will peak early in the mornings of Aug. 11, 12, and 13, meaning that’s when the most meteors will be visible in the sky, says Philip Muirhead, a professor of astronomy at Boston University.
The meteor shower technically started two weeks ago, when the Earth began crossing paths with the orbit of the Swift Tuttle comet, the parent of the Perseids. Each year around this time, the Earth drifts through Swift Tuttle’s debris trail, and material from the comet’s tail hurtles into the atmosphere at around 35 miles per second, lighting up the sky, said Meers Oppenheim, a professor of astronomy at Boston University.
The comet rubble is thickest on a few select days in August. That’s this week. And if you really want to see the best of the Perseids, just before dawn is the perfect time, according to Oppenheim.
“Dawn is when you are on the front side of the Earth sort of sweeping through the solar system, like bugs on a window,” he said. “An hour or two before dawn is best.”
But if you’re not interested in losing sleep or waking up at an unnatural hour, not to worry.
“You should be able to see them at any time of night, they’ll just be the most vivid before dawn,” said Muirhead.
Leave the city
A general rule of thumb for watching meteor showers: watch in the darkest place you can, says Muirhead.
Swift Tuttle leaves behind debris of all sizes and the biggest chunks generate the biggest flashes of light. Smaller meteors are not nearly as bright as some of the bigger ones.
In Boston, where light pollution is rampant, those small meteors will be virtually impossible to see.
But if you leave the city and head somewhere dark, the Vermont countryside for example, your odds of seeing the full beauty of the Perseids, which at its peak can feature 100 meteors shooting across the sky each hour, go up significantly, according to NASA.
“The best conditions for seeing anything astronomical that is faint is somewhere away from light pollution,” says Muirhead.
The moon, when full, can tamper with views, too. But this week it’s in a waxing crescent phase that will reveal only a sliver of light and should be no problem, says Oppenheim.
If you must stay in an urban area, find a rooftop or a park
The goal is to get as far away from the light, toward as open a sky as possible. The top of your apartment building may suffice.
Or try a park like Boston Common or Franklin Park, where the open space could provide some decent views, Muirhead suggests.
Be warned, you won’t witness the same phenomenon you would outside the city, but you’ll certainly see the bigger meteors. If a rare fireball, or “larger explosion of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak,” happens to shoot across the sky, you’d see that too, according to NASA.
Andrew Brinker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.