Every year, the Perseid meteor shower wows viewers when it reaches its peak mid-August. But this year the show promises to be better than ever. Known as the Perseid “outburst,” the number of shooting stars could double in the already spectacular shower.
This year's peak will take place the night of August 11 and the morning of August 12, according to NASA. The Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus from which shooting stars appear to emanate and takes place each year when Earth crosses through the debris field of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Most are just the size of a grain of sand, but larger particles light up as they incinerate in the atmosphere, creating a glittery show that usually lasts from the middle of July till late August.
“Here’s something to think about. The meteors you’ll see this year are from comet flybys that occurred hundreds if not thousands of years ago,” Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office in Huntsville, Alabama, says in a press release. “And they’ve traveled billions of miles before their kamikaze run into Earth’s atmosphere.”
Cooke tells Bruce McClure and Deborah Byrd at EarthSky that the comet leaves distinct trails of debris called meteor streams on its 133-year-orbit of the Sun. The gravity of large planets in our solar system, especially Jupiter, tug on these meteor streams, sometimes pulling them closer to Earth’s orbit, meaning our planet encounters more debris than usual. That leads to the occasional Perseid outbursts like the one predicted for this year. The last outburst occurred in 2009.
“This year Jupiter’s influence has moved the 1079, 1479, and 1862 [meteor] streams closer to Earth,” Cooke tells McClure and Byrd. “So all forecasters are projecting a Perseid outburst with double normal rates.”
That means a meteor shower that could have up to 200 shooting stars per hour under perfect conditions. According to NASA, the Perseids should be visible from the Northern Hemisphere and will appear in the northeast quadrant of the sky.
McClure also gives several tips for successful viewing. First, get as far away from city lights as possible. If the moon is up, find an area with trees, hedges or mountains that block the moon and create a moonshadow, which will increase meteor visiblity. The time between midnight and dawn is best for viewing, but early bird watchers in the evening will still get a show and should keep an eye out for earthgrazers, slow meteors that travel horizontally along the sky.