The Perseids Meteor Shower
The Perseids! This annual meteor shower is a crowd favorite and this year the Moon sets earlier, giving us dark skies to enjoy this celestial storm. The Perseids will peak around the nights of August 12 and 13, but you should expect to see meteors in the sky for several days before and after. Technically we can see meteors associated with the Perseids starting in mid-July and throughout the month of August!
The Perseids meteor shower (Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Looking for meteors—or “shooting stars”—is easy: head outside, lie down, and look up! Meteors can appear in any part of the sky and are fast; the rock and dust of the Persieds is clocked as moving at over 120,000 miles per hour! Don’t worry about binoculars or telescopes, your own eyes are all you need for this star show.
Why is this meteor shower named the “Perseids” though? It all starts with where we see the meteors come from in the sky: the radiant point. You can easily find the Perseids radiant yourself. Start by finding the constellation of Cassiopeia. Look to the northeast for a bright “W” of stars; it’s fairly compact and you can cover it up with your outstretched hand. These five stars are the entirety of Cassiopeia, the Queen. Following the “W” down towards the horizon—about another hand length away from the last star—you can find the bright star Mirfak, the brightest star in Perseus, one of the great heroes of Greek mythology.
Tracking back up from Mirfak just a little bit—about three finger widths if you want to measure the sky some more—is the radiant of the Perseids meteor shower. If you take a long exposure image of the night sky during this time of the year, most of the meteors you spot would appear to start from this spot. If you want to see the Perseids meteor shower with your own eyes, look away from the radiant! When the bits of rock and dust enter our atmosphere, it takes a second for friction to start heating up the air around them. Once we start seeing the light of these meteors burning up in our atmosphere it only lasts for a second! To see these meteors best, face away from the radiant and look up. Add a blanket or lawn chair and your beverage of choice can only help to make these hot summer evenings of meteor watching even more enjoyable. Don’t forget the bug spray!
August 8—Third Quarter Moon
This phase occurs when the Moon is three-quarters of the way through its orbit around the Earth.
August 15—New Moon
The Moon is located on the same side of the Earth as the Sun and is not visible in the night sky. This is the best time of the month to observe faint objects like galaxies and star clusters because there is no moonlight to interfere.
August 22—First Quarter Moon
The Moon is one quarter of its way through its orbit around the Earth, which makes half the Moon illuminated and half dark from our perspective. This is the best time of the month to see the Moon’s surface features like craters and mountains through binoculars or a telescope.
August 30—Full Moon
The Moon is located on the opposite side of the Earth as the Sun and the side we see is fully illuminated.