On any given night of stargazing, you can expect to see about two meteors every hour. Meteors, commonly known as ‘shooting stars’, are flashes of light caused by pieces of dust or rock burning up as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. Incredibly, these are usually the size of a grain of sand, but they travel so fast that they create a trail that glows as brightly as the stars.
Every so often, the Earth’s orbit brings us into a particularly dense patch of cosmic debris – a trail of rock and dust left in the wake of an asteroid or comet. We see this as a meteor shower.
The Perseid (‘Per-see-id’) meteor shower is one of the most active in the northern hemisphere, providing up to 100 meteors per hour. Caused by debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids are named after the constellation that the meteors appear to come from: Perseus (astronomers call this point the meteor shower’s ‘radiant’).
This year, the Perseids will peak on 11-13 August, but you can spot them anytime from around 17 July to 24 August. The meteors can be seen at any time of night, but the darker it is, the better your chances, so aim for between midnight and 5am. A night with little moonlight, around the new moon on 20 July or 19 August, would be perfect.
Let your eyes adjust, then look directly up. Although the meteors originate in Perseus, it’s not important to specifically find that constellation – they can travel across the whole sky. So make sure you can see as much sky as possible, without obstruction from buildings or trees, to give yourself the best chance. Most importantly, make sure that you’re comfortable, by taking a chair (a reclining one is best), a blanket, and maybe even a bottle of wine with you.