As meteor showers go, the weekend’s Perseids should be a decent one. Scientists expect dozens of meteors per hour to be visible under reasonably dark skies away from bright city lights — the farther north you go in North Phoenix, or up into the mountains, the better. However, a bright waning moon will drown out fainter meteors. And clouds would of course ruin the view (NoPho Weather Forecast).
The Perseid meteor shower, which this year peaks Aug. 11, 12 and 13, is one of the most dependable annual “shooting star” shows. Each year, Earth plows through a stream of cosmic dust left in the wake of comet Swift-Tuttle. Most of the debris is no larger than a grain of sand. The bits enter Earth’s atmosphere at 132,000 mph — somewhat faster than an SUV on the I-17 — creating streaks of light as they disintegrate.
A few larger chunks, the size of a pea or marble, can create dramatic “fireballs” that are as memorable as they are bright and long-lasting. Fireballs are impossible to miss, even in bright moonlight from an urban area. The Perseids produce more fireballs than any other meteor shower, NASA research shows.
When to Watch
Meteor showers are subject to hype. They’re rarely as dramatic as billed. But the sight of just one bright Perseid can make an hour of skywatching well worth it, and it’s not unlikely to be rewarded with several shooting stars in an hour (just don’t expect the sky to be ablaze).
The key is to know when, where and how to observe.
This year the Perseids will peak Friday night and Saturday night (Sunday night could still be worth a look), according to EarthSky and other experts. The shower ramps up as twilight fades and the part of Earth you’re standing on rotates into the oncoming stream of space debris, their apparent point of origin rising higher as the night goes on.
The best time to watch is after 10 p.m. and into the pre-dawn hours.
However, since the moon will rise at about 10 p.m. Friday night and 10:30 on Saturday night in the Valley, you might steal a glance in the eastern sky before moonrise — Perseids can grace the sky anytime after it gets dark.
How to Watch
Meteor watching requires no special equipment (telescopes and binoculars are useless, as the meteors move too quickly). Just go outside and look up. Some tips:
- Find a dark place away from porch lights and street lights.
- Seek a spot where a house or tree blocks the moonlight.
- It takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so have patience.
- Lie back on a blanket or lounge chair — craned necks discourage patience.
- Since the meteors can come from anywhere, get as wide a view of the sky as possible.
“You don’t need to look in any particular direction,” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “Meteors can generally be seen all over the sky.”
If you trace a Perseid backward, the path will lead you to the constellation Perseus (hence the name of the shower). But you don’t need to know about that to find these streaks of light. They can appear in any compass direction or, for example, show up overhead and race toward the horizon. Plus, other non-Perseid meteors could come from any direction on any given summer night.
What to Expect
Rumors are circulating the interwebs that this year’s Perseids will be “brightest shower in recorded human history,” with some meteors visible during the day.
Not even close, Cooke says.
The Perseids never have that sort of outbreak (the November Leonid meteor shower is known for more dramatic “meteor storms”). And while this year will see above-average activity, it won’t be among the shower’s best performances.
“This year, we are expecting enhanced rates of about 150 per hour or so, but the increased number will be cancelled out by the bright moon, the light of which will wash out the fainter Perseids,” Cooke says. “A meteor every couple of minutes is good, and certainly worth going outside to look.” See a Meteor? Share Your Experience on Facebook >>>