Every year in August, the Swift-Tuttle comet puts on a brilliant show. When the Earth plows into its wake, tiny bits of debris left behind from the comet slam into our atmosphere at 132,000 miles per hour, reach temperatures of 3,000 to 10,000 degrees, and streak across the sky in what we call the Perseid meteor shower.
In a normal year, the Perseids are the most spectacular meteor shower we can see. Spectators can normally see around 60 to 100 meteors an hour.
But this is not a normal year. Astronomers are forecasting that the Perseids will be firing twice as fast on the night of August 11-12. "Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour," said Bill Cooke, NASA’s head of meteoroid environments, in a press statement.
And lucky for us, nights are still long and warm. There’s no better time of year to stay up late, lay down a blanket, and stare at shooting stars. Don’t miss this. Here’s everything you need to know to watch.
Where can I spot the Perseids?
A few Perseids can typically be seen each night between July 17 and August 24. But they’ll peak on the nights of August 11 and 12.
And that’s when you’ll want to look toward the constellation Perseus — you know, the mythical Greek hero who chopped off the head of the wretched gorgon Medusa and lived to tell the tale. The meteors will rain like sparks from the hero’s righteous blade.
If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, you should be able to spot the Perseids rising in the northeastern sky each night during the peak of the meteor shower. NASA recommends waiting until after midnight to start viewing. The sky will be darker then (the moon will set around midnight or 1 am for most of the US), and the constellation Perseus will be higher in the sky. The agency also advises to give your eyes around 45 minutes to fully adjust to the darkness to view the meteors.
You’ll want to be in as dark of a place as you can get to — like a park far away from city lights. Check with this online light pollution map to chart out a dark place to watch.
Astronomers are expecting around double the normal amount of Perseid sightings this year — around 150 to 200 per hour. Why?
Because they believe the planet Jupiter has shifted the path of comet debris just enough that Earth will plow through the densest area, as Slate’s resident astronomer Phil Plait explains.
What if I can’t/won’t go outside?
Try. But if you can’t, there is a live stream. Watch along with NASA on the video below. (Note: NASA’s broadcast of the shower won’t begin until 10 pm on August 10.)
What are the chances of one of these meteors causing some damage?
Very small. Most of the debris burning in the sky is sand-size. It will completely disintegrate 50 miles overhead, as NASA reports.
Can I see more awesome photos of the Perseids?