Clear summer nights are perfect for sitting back in a lawn chair and watching the stars up above. Chances are, if you stay out long enough, you will also see a meteor streak across the sky. Also called shooting stars, these fast, fleeting fiery visitors to Earth’s upper atmosphere can spark wonder in any stargazer and evoke an “Ooh” and “Aah!”
The popular Perseid Meteor Shower peaks this week. But before you get too excited, a warning: meteor showers are notoriously fickle events. Even astronomers can’t predict what kind of light-show you will see. But here are some tips and tricks to seeing the most meteors and having a guaranteed good time under the stars.
Shooting stars each year
The Perseids are tiny specks of ice and dust that come from the tail of a comet: Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every year, Earth slams into this cosmic debris to create these shooting stars. The Perseids get their name from the constellation Perseus from which the meteors seem to radiate. But the shooting stars do not come from the stars that are trillions of miles away – they merely burn up in Earth’s atmosphere 40-50 miles overhead.
To see the most meteors, get out in the country. If you are away from city lights you will see more of the fainter meteor streaks. The best time to view is 11 p.m.-2 a.m. on August 11-12. However, you can see a stray shooting star earlier in the evening as well as a few days on either side of the peak.
Naked eye event
You do not need telescopes or binoculars to observe a meteor shower. You want to take in as much of the sky as possible, and viewing meteors with the naked eye is a must. On August 11, face northeast between 10 p.m.-1 a.m. and scan the sky. The meteors will tend to fly from the constellation Perseus (which you can identify using phone apps), but could come from anywhere.
While you are waiting, make sure to check out the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which are lighting up the southern sky. Then the third quarter Moon will rise after 1 a.m. and look dramatic on the horizon. But the higher it gets in the sky, the more moonlight will wash out the meteors.
My final advice is to lower your expectations. Don’t expect to see a laser light show or the sky falling. Be skeptical of any news story that promises you will see “80-100 meteors per hour.” If it is a clear night, and you’re away from city lights, you may see about 10-30 meteors per hour.
Watching for meteors is not an action packed adventure. But it is a chance to slow down, stay up late, and drink in the night sky with friends and family. And even if you see only a few meteors, it can be one of the best nights you can spend under the stars.
Dean Regas is the Astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, and author of the book 100 Things to See in the Night Sky, Expanded Edition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Space debris quick guide
Comet – an icy body which produces a tail when close to the Sun
Asteroid – a rocky or metallic body out in space and orbiting the Sun
Meteoroid – a small asteroid
Meteor – an object falling through the Earth’s atmosphere aka a “shooting star”
Meteorite – an object from space that lands on the Earth
Event: Meteor Showers Online Class
What: Astronomer Dean Regas leads this online class to explore shooting stars. Plus he’ll share tips on viewing the Perseid Meteor Shower. Great for all ages.
When: Monday, Aug. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Online Class
Cost: $10 per household
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