This season’s blockbuster isn’t showing in theaters, it’s lighting up the skies overhead.
The annual Perseid meteor shower, which is known for some of the brightest shooting stars, is slated to happen this week, giving stargazers the opportunity to view this year’s most anticipated meteor shower.
This month’s celestial event may be even more spectacular because of an increased rate of meteors, according to NASA.
“Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11-12,” said Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environments Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour.”
An outburst is the term used to describe a meteor shower that has more meteors than usual, and it’s not very common. The last Perseid outburst happened seven years ago.
Stargazers have several days to enjoy this year’s unique show. The Perseids, pronounced PER-see-ids, will peak during the night and early morning hours of August 11-13.
The best meteor watching should fall between midnight to dawn on August 12, with 160 to 200 meteors expected to be visible per hour.
For reference, May’s Eta Aquarids meteor shower had a rate of 10 meteors per hour — slim pickings compared to the Perseids’ light show.
Remnants of a comet
The Perseids are ancestors of the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which was discovered in 1862. Every meteor from the Perseids is a remnant of this ancient space rock.
Now the Swift-Tuttle is a field of debris composed of icy space rocks, and takes about 133 years to orbit around our Sun. As it moves through the inner solar system, the remnants of the comet spill out trillions of cosmic particles in its wake, and when those rocks enter Earth’s atmosphere they burn up, creating a brilliant flash of light — a phenomenon people interpret as shooting stars.
These fast and bright meteors are a favorite for sky watchers, and those in the Northern Hemisphere are sure to be treated to an even more breathtaking event this year because Earth will be closer to the meteor shower.
Typically our planet grazes past the outskirts of the Swift-Tuttle debris in August, but once in a while, Jupiter’s gravity affects these particles, causing Earth to intersect right in the middle of the debris field, meaning there’s a greater potential for more meteors to dot the night sky.
“The meteors you’ll see this year are from comet fly-bys that occurred hundreds if not thousands of years ago,” said Cooke. “And they’ve traveled billions of miles before their kamikaze run into Earth’s atmosphere.”
Observing the night skies
The best time to view this celestial wonder is between midnight and dawn of August 12, but you’ll also have to remember to be patient. It takes about 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, so you’ll need to set aside some time to watch the Perseids.
For those hoping to capture stunning photos of the event, you’ll simply need a camera and lens, however, a tripod will come in handy if you’re hoping to capture time-lapses or long exposure images, according to Sky and Telescope.
Despite being known for its bright meteors, the Perseids are best seen under true dark skies like the ones you’ll find in national parks or rural areas. Sky watchers can use the Atlas of Night Sky Brightness to find a good, dark spot for observing the stars.
But for those who can’t escape the glare of light pollution, NASA will be streaming the event starting at 10 p.m. ET on Ustream on the evenings of August 11, 12 and 13.