August hosts the year's most prolific meteor shower. Get somewhere dark and prepare for a dazzling display in 2018.
August is one of the most popular months for getting outdoors and going camping. By coincidence, this is also the very finest month for stargazing.
Every August, Earth orbits through a massive stream of debris left behind by a comet, creating hundreds of bright shooting stars every hour for days on end. If you've never seen the Perseid meteor shower during your lifetime, it's probably just because you weren't somewhere dark.
Dependably bright, this incredible show of shooting stars isn't just worth seeing — it's actually worth traveling to see on as dark a sky as you can find.
What are the Perseids?
The Perseid meteor shower is caused when the Earth's orbit of the sun intercepts with a trail of dust and tiny meteors left behind by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the Sun every 133 years and last swept through the solar system in 1992. This is a huge mass of debris so big that the Perseid meteor shower will run from July 17 to August 24 in 2018. That's a whopping five week meteor shower, during which you can can expect to see as many as 60 to 100 fiery, colorful, and exceptionally bright shooting stars every hour.
When can I see the Perseids?
Although the Perseid meteor shower is technically a long, all-summer event, it's best viewed in 2018 around its peak, on the night of Sunday, August 12 and into the early hour of August 13. As luck would have it, that's only one day after the new moon. (That means the moon will make a brief appearance as a crescent, and set long before the night side of Earth collides with the Perseid stream.)
The few days prior will be almost as impressive — and in 2018, just as dark — so you're not limited to one night. You should also be able to see a particularly bright planet Venus high above the horizon in the evening sky until the meteor shower begins. The darkest hours are right before the dawn, so the prime time to see the meteor shower is around 4:00 a.m.
Where should I look to see the Perseids?
The debris stream lies in the region covered by the constellation Perseus, which follows the constellation Cassiopeia across the night sky. It's a northern constellation, so the Perseid meteor shower is most easily viewed from the northern hemisphere (the view from below the equator is poor).
But don't obsess about finding the constellation of Perseus, because the shooting stars can appear anywhere in the night sky. If you trace them back to their origin, you'll come to Perseus (the so-called 'radiant point'), which will be in the north-eastern sky during August.
The best technique for seeing Perseid shooting stars is to gaze generally north-east, about mid-way between the horizon and the zenith (the point in the night sky above your head) and don't stop looking. Don't check your phone, either, as you will definitely miss a shooting star, and the bright white light will kill your night vision.
Because artificial light can ruin even the best meteor shower, stargazers will want to get to rural areas — and perhaps even an International Dark Sky Park. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather, too.
When will the Perseids come back?
The Perseid meteor shower will return in 2019 , peaking on the night of Monday, August 12 — but it won't be anywhere near as easy to spot a shooting star. That's because a full moon will occur just three days later, meaning the skies will be washed-out by strong moonlight for all of the 2019 show.
Whether you book a national park campsite or decide to drive out into the countryside, it's wise to make your travel plans early for the Perseid meteor shower in 2018. Because with so many bright fireballs on the horizon, you won't be the only one stargazing that night.