Tonight and tomorrow night – or perhaps I should say in the wee hours of the morning just before dawn – I’ll drive out into the country, find myself an isolated spot, stretch out on the top of my Ford Focus station wagon, and gaze up into the sky, enjoying the Perseids.
What was that, you say?
The Perseids are a prolific meteor shower associated with the Swift-Tuttle comet. They get their name because the point from which they appear to come lies within the constellation of Perseus. However, these “shooting stars” can be seen all over the sky, and best visible in the northern hemisphere.
Every August I like to go out and watch this astronomical spectacular, which peaks around the twelfth of August. During the peak, as many as one hundred or more meteors can be seen each hour.
This weekend is in fact the peak time for watching the Perseids, so if you have never gazed upon these falling stars, now is your chance. This year will be an excellent viewing time for watching due to the moon being in a “new moon” stage which means the sky will be dark and thus particularly favorable for viewing.
The best time to watch the Perseids is during the wee hours of the morning, between one o’clock and 5 o’clock – meteors are best seen during the dark hours shortly before dawn. The best date will be during that time early Sunday morning, or early Monday morning… although you can watch them pretty much at any time after dark for the next couple of days. Clouds will affect visibility, so if you can’t see the sky one night, try for the a clearer sky the next night.
Although the Perseids do appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, it is not necessary to specifically look in this direction, as these meteors can pretty much be seen from anywhere in the sky. However, if you are interested, Perseus rises in the northeast.
The best way to observe meteors is to go out into the country into an isolated area away from city lights, etc. and then stretch out either on a reclining lawn chair, on the ground, or on the hood/roof of your vehicle. Trying to look up at the sky from a standing or sitting position will likely result in a stiff neck! If getting out into the country is not possible, at least try to find an open area such as a golf course, baseball field, etc. where there aren’t a lot of bright lights or trees/buildings/etc. to obstruct your vision. Bring a sweater/jacket or wear a sweatshirt in case it gets chilly. Don’t bring binoculars or a telescope…you don’t need them. You will be able to see the Perseids with your eyes alone easily…just gaze up in the sky and be patient – it shouldn’t take long before you start seeing an awesome natural display. At their peak, you might see them as often as one every minute!
Basically they will look like a glowing streak moving across the sky. Some will be quite bright, others will be more faint. They move quite quickly, so you have to watch carefully to catch them! As for trying to catch one on camera…good luck! You will likely need to set it up on a tripod and do a lengthy time exposure.
While the Perseids are not the only meteor shower which takes place during the year, they are probably the best known and best visible. There are plenty of websites on the internet for those of you wishing to do more research into other such events, including a special once-in-a-lifetime meteor shower occurring on September 1st (visible to those on the West Coast), and meteor showers later this fall and early winter. A good site for more information is
This brilliant picture of a meteor, taken by Tony Hoffman of New York City,was photographed during the Leonid meteor shower of November, 2001. Besides the colorful meteor itself, you can also see the planet Jupiter as the bright object at the very top of the picture, and Saturn can be seen as the bright pinkish object between the tree tops
Happy Meteor Watching!