The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most spectacular of the year, offering a high chance of spotting a celestial fireball burning across the sky. The shower is visible every year during August, so check online to find out when the Perseids’ peak activity will be occurring, as this may be the best time to go meteor-spotting.
Weather and the phases of the Moon are also important factors to consider, as cloudy skies or a bright full Moon will affect how many you can see in the night sky.
The annual Perseid meteor shower occurs as Earth passes through the trail of debris left behind by comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The comet orbits our Solar System on an elliptical path that takes it periodically close to Earth. Its last close flyby of our planet was in 1992.
Due to the position of the comet’s debris trail, it can be easily affected by the gravitational influence of Jupiter and other giant planets.
The good news is that no special equipment is required to see them: meteor spotters need only look up!
It is worth checking the Perseids’ zenithal hourly rate (ZHR) for the year that you want to try and observe them.
The ZHR is a means of categorising meteor showers and the number equates to how many meteors one might expect to see under absolutely perfect conditions when the radiant – the point from which the meteors seem to emanate – is directly overhead.
This is merely a guide, however, as perfect conditions are always unlikely and observers should, in reality, only expect to see a fraction of the ZHR.
Kevin Lewis was imaging the sky above the ‘church in the sea’ on the Isle of Anglesey in August last year when he managed to capture a Perseid overhead, seen as a vertical streak above right of centre. This image was taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mk III DSLR camera and 24-70mm lens. Credit: K. Lewis
Where to look
The Perseid meteor shower gets its name from the fact that its radiant is the constellation of Perseus.
The best place to look is about two thirds up in the sky, preferably away from any sources of light pollution, or indeed the Moon.
Locate Perseus, look away from the radiant, rather than directly at it, and you should be able to spot meteors flying in the opposite direction.
While the peak may occur mid-August a week either side of this date should also produce some amazing displays.
Olli Reijonen sent in this image of a Perseid, top right of the picture, that he managed to capture while photographing noctilucent clouds and aurora at Lake Päijänne in Finland. Olli used an Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and Panasonic Lumix G 200mm lens.
Credit: O. Reijonen
How to look
No specialist equipment is needed, as the meteors will be visible to the naked eye.
You should, however, allow about 20 minutes or so for your eyes to adjust to the darkness in order to improve night seeing.
Find a spot in the open, away from light pollution or tall buildings and trees, where you can get a good view of the sky.
In the northern hemisphere, the meteors will be easiest to spot from midnight to dawn.
Be sure to wrap up warmly. It may still be summer, but meteor watching can involve a lot of standing or sitting still for long periods of time. Bring plenty of snacks and liquids to keep your energy up.
Also, continuously looking upwards for long periods of time can be an awful strain on your neck, so reclining chairs can be an advantage.
And lastly, meteor watching is best done in groups, as observing with friends and family undoubtedly makes the prospect of standing outdoors in the early hours more appealing!