On the night of August 12 and early morning of August 13, the Earth will crash into debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle when it last swept through the solar system in 1992.
It happens at this time every year, and the result is always the same: hundreds of shooting stars.
“Your best chance to see shooting stars is after midnight because then you are on the night-side of Earth as it hits the meteors head-on,” said John Barentine, Program Manager at the International Dark-Sky Association in Phoenix, Arizona. However, this year the peak coincides with a Full Moon, which means the best nights – when you can meteor-gaze at midnight – will likely be in the small hours of 14 August, when the Moon rises at around midnight, or 15 August, when it’s up 40 minutes after midnight.
This year the Perseids might be a little more demanding than usual in terms of when you have to be awake, but a lot of stargazers in the U.S. will find them more special than ever. Why? A week or so after the Perseids peak, the first total solar eclipse visible from the U.S. in nearly four decades will bring darkness in the day on August 21, with a chance to glimpse the solar corona for just over two minutes.
Why not combine the two for the ultimate astro-themed road trip? While pairing the Perseids with the eclipse is perfectly possible, for shooting stars an inky black night sky away from light pollution is required. Anywhere around 40 miles from the nearest town will give you the right conditions to maximise shooting stars, but the easiest way to ensure a good view is to head to an International Dark Sky Park, which are quickly becoming something of a tourism phenomenon. Here are some of our favourite dark sky destinations.
For those that live in New England, it’s got to be Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania.
“It's a great site in a pool of darkness in norther central Pennsylvania, and it’s one of the best dark sky parks we have anywhere,” said Barentine. However, being within three or four hours drive from Boston, Washington D.C., and New York City has its drawbacks.
“It does get very popular in summer,” said Barentine. “You really need to reserve your camping spot well in advance.” Don’t miss the unobstructed 360-degree 'gold tier' night sky views from its ‘Astronomy Field’ at the top of a 2,300-foot high mountain, with campsites across the road.
Changing to dark sky-friendly light bulbs in one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations is a big job, but Grand Canyon made the switch and got provisional Dark Sky Park status last year.
“Any of the big national parks could do it,” said Barentine. “When parks are large and they have a lot of visitor facilities and infrastructure it’s difficult, but Grand Canyon shows that it can be done if you have the will on the part of the management.”
Camp out in the canyon for the darkest skies, or drive to either Mather Point near Grand Canyon Village on the south rim. However, only the remoter Desert View or Lipan Point will give you real seclusion.
Although neither of these almost adjoining areas in Wyoming are technically Dark Sky Parks, they may be soon. “Both of these parks are working on dark sky designations right now, with Yellowstone further along than the Tetons,” said Barentine, who adds that about two-thirds of Yellowstone’s light fixtures need replacing for the area to minimise light pollution enough to gain Dark Sky Park status.
However, there is a bonus feature here: August's total solar eclipse goes right through the Grand Tetons, so watch the eclipse either there or in quieter (and probably clearer) Riverton to the east may be in order.
Only designated a Dark Sky Park earlier this year, Antelope Island State Park is a great choice if you’re close to Salt Lake City.
“The eastern side of the park is fairly light because it faces Salt Lake City, but there's nothing to the west because of the lake, so definitely get over to the west side of the island for the darkest areas,” said Barentine.
Campsites on the western side include Bridger Bay and Antelope Island Campground. This western Utah area also often has clearer weather in August than Utah’s more famous Dark Sky Parks – Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument and Cedar Breaks National Monument – because of the monsoon weather patterns in the Four Corner states in August that often produce afternoon cloud that hangs around.
A national park largely on Maine's Mount Desert Island on the Atlantic coast, Acadia has moose, bear, whales … and stars.
“Acadia has a good infrastructure and it's a pretty dark option for those who want to go up the coast,” said Barentine. “It’s not yet an official Dark Sky Park, but it's closing in on applying.” If you want somewhere truly remote to see shooting stars, the park’s Duck Harbor Campground on Isle au Haut has five primitive sites available. It’s linked to the mainland by mailboat.
The Acadia Night Sky Festival is set for Sept. 21-24, 2017.
Near Scottsburg in the heart of Virginia, this area of forests and meadows on the shoreline of the John H. Kerr Reservoir is a good choice for anyone coming from Washington DC, Richmond and Northolt in Virginia, or from Charlotte in North Carolina.
“They've got good night sky programs and a huge open field set aside for observing, which has a good view of a low horizon for stargazing and meteor showers,” said Barentine. There's a campground and an area of simple cabins.
The Perseids, like any meteor shower, should be treated like wildlife-spotting; the more you look, the more you will see. The spectacle of seeing three bright meteors streak across the sky inside a few seconds is awesome but demands patience. At all costs avoid the temptation to do anything that takes your eyes from the skies, and definitely don’t check your smartphone. Its bright light will also kill your night vision (which will take 20 minutes to recover).
Shooting star-gazing is best done while laying down on the ground, which makes the warmer, drier temperatures of August the perfect time for the Perseids.