The Perseids Meteor Shower Will Bring the Best Shooting Stars of the Year — If You Know When to Look
It’s the year's most prolific display of shooting stars, but the Perseids meteor shower will be tricky to see in all its glory.
It’s one of the most spectacular nights in the stargazer’s calendar, but in 2019 seeing the Perseids meteor shower will require some careful timing. Though scheduled to peak from midnight through dawn on Aug. 12-13, strong moonlight will make that very difficult. However, there are ways around it if you want to see shooting stars this summer.
What is the Perseids meteor shower?
All shooting stars are caused by Earth colliding with streams of dust and debris shed by comets. As those particles, called meteoroids, strike the atmosphere and burn up, we see them as “shooting stars.” The year’s most prolific meteor shower, August’s Perseids, is caused by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last swept through the solar system in 1992. It regularly produces about 60 colorful and bright shooting stars every hour on its peak night of Aug. 12-13.
Why the ‘Sturgeon Moon’ is a problem in 2019
On Thursday, Aug. 15, the Full Sturgeon Moon will rise in the southeastern sky at dusk. That’s just three days after the peak of the Perseids meteor shower, and that’s a problem. For the preceding week the moon will be getting brighter and more dominating in the night sky as it waxes from first quarter moon to a full moon. On Monday, the night of the Perseids peak, it’s going to be 92 percent illuminated, which will wash out the sky and make all but the very brightest “fireball” shooting stars very difficult to see. It’s for that reason that you should go out looking for Perseid meteors now. As a bonus, the Delta Aquarids meteor shower is also displaying in early August, having peaked on July 29-30.
When and where to look for shooting stars
The first week or so of August is when to go looking for Perseids. The meteor shower actually runs from July 17 through Aug. 24 each year, slowly building up to about 60 shooting stars per hour on the peak night. You’re not going to see that many in the first week or so of August, but even 20 per hour would be an incredible sight. Get outside after midnight, which is when your location is firmly on the night side of Earth, and look generally to the northeastern sky towards Perseus, where the shooting stars will appear to originate from (though they can appear anywhere in the night sky). If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a “fireball” with a long tail that skims the Earth's atmosphere and blazes through the night sky for a second or so.
When is the next meteor shower?
The next reasonably big meteor shower is the Orionids, the result of debris leftover from Halley's Comet, which peaks on Oct. 22, though the best of the year is the Geminids meteor shower peak on Dec. 14. Though it’s cold and therefore more famous in the southern hemisphere (where December is the height of summer), the Geminids reliably produces about 100 multi-colored shooting stars per hour. They come not from a comet, but from an asteroid called 3200 Phaethon.
There’s nothing like catching a falling star, and it’s well worth making a trip to a dark sky site to experience a meteor shower. The more you look, the more you will see. However, catching the peak of the Perseids in 2019 will require patience and good timing. Either way, there are few better excuses to get outside and go stargazing, and few better months than August to do so. If it’s a clear night, expect fireballs.