The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year from about July 23 to August 22. The shower’s “maximum,” or time when the greatest number of meteors per hour fall, is usually August 11, 12, or 13. Find out more information on our Meteor Shower Calendar.
Meteors occur when Earth rushes through a stream of dust and debris left behind by a passing comet. When the bits strike Earth’s upper atmosphere, friction with the air causes each particle to heat and burn up. We see the result as a meteor. See more facts about meteor showers.
What Is the Perseid Meteor Shower?
The Perseid meteor shower occurs every August, and its fame comes from the fact that it reliably has the brightest and most numerous meteors. Even if the viewing conditions aren’t the best, you’re likely to spot some meteors during the maximum nights of the Perseid meteor shower each year.
The Perseid shower is named for the constellation Perseus, which is its radiant. A radiant is the point of origin of the meteor shower, so the Perseid meteors will appear to be traveling away from the constellation Perseus in the night sky. Locating Perseus might therefore help you to see as many meteors as possible.
The Perseids are the legacy of Comet Swift-Tuttle, discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Parnell Tuttle. The comet passes through the inner Solar System, where Earth is located, only once every 133 years. Each August, Earth encounters the trail of debris left behind by Swift-Tuttle, and we are treated to one of the best meteor showers of the year.
The rate at which the meteors fall is determined by where Comet Swift-Tuttle is in relation to Earth when Earth crosses Swift-Tuttle’s orbit. The concentration of meteors is higher when the comet is near Earth. In the early 20th century, the peak rate of the Perseid meteor shower was as low as 4 meteors per hour. When Swift-Tuttle was very close to Earth in 1993, however, the peak rate was between 200 and 500 meteors per hour.
The first record of the Perseid meteor shower comes from a Chinese manuscript written in A.D. 36. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli linked the Perseid shower to Comet Swift-Tuttle in 1866, four years after the comet was detected by modern astronomers.
The best meteor showers occur when the Moon is absent or mostly absent. Check our Moon Phase Calendar to find out the phase of the Moon during this year’s Perseid meteor shower.
You can find out more about the other major annual meteor shower, the Geminid meteor shower, here.
Photo Credit: Adam Block/University of Arizona. The Perseid meteors radiate from the Perseus constellation.
Viewing Tips for the Perseid Meteor Shower
Watching a meteor shower could not be simpler. Just go outside on the night of the Perseid meteor shower “maximum” and look up! You can maximize your chances of seeing meteors by finding an open area far from man-made lights. Of course, cloud cover can prevent you from seeing the shower. Check our long range forecast to see whether it’ll be a stormy evening or clear skies.
Being comfortable is important. To avoid a stiff neck, bring a chaise lounge or reclining lawn chair. A sleeping bag on the ground works, too. Find a slight incline so that your head will be higher than your feet. Bring an extra layer of clothes; when you are sitting or lying outside at night, your body heat radiates directly into the sky.
Planning an annual camping trip for the few maximum days of the Perseid meteor shower is a great idea as well. You can get away from light pollution and be comfortably set up for an all-night viewing. Mountaintops are also great viewing locations because they are usually at a high enough altitude to reduce haze from air and light pollution.
The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but you’ll have the best luck by gazing at whatever part of the sky is darkest at your location. Though it might be tempting, avoid using binoculars or a telescope. It is better to look at the whole sky than a tiny part of it, and your eyes will automatically move toward any motion up above. Avoid looking at your cell phone or other lights during the meteor shower, as this will damage your night vision.
As mentioned above, the natural light from the Moon might also be an obstacle. The shower is best when the Moon is absent, but if it happens to be around this year, try to face away from it when looking for meteors. Its light pollution will affect the whole sky, but it will be worse closer to the Moon.
The best time to watch is between midnight and dawn. Doing it with family and friends makes the difference between a lonely vigil and an adventure. Have fun, and be sure to tell us about your meteor shower experience below.
Worried about a meteor hitting Earth while you’re watching? Find out why you shouldn’t be worried here.
Find out more about the 2016 Perseid meteor shower.