Running out of things to watch on Netflix? Turn to the night sky to catch the 2020 Perseids meteor shower, which will be peaking this Tuesday and Wednesday (August 11 and 12).
“The showstopper meteor shower of the year is always the Perseids,” Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, tells Yahoo Life. “I have seen some fireballs that have literally shook me to my core.”
What is the Perseids shower?
Faherty tells Yahoo Life that the Perseids is the most watched meteor shower of the year, and for good reasons: It’s the only summertime meteor shower — which is when meteoroids, or space rocks, enter Earth’s atmosphere, looking like bright streaks or shooting stars. And it has a high rate of about 100 meteors per hour.
“The Perseids, like all meteor showers, originate from the Earth colliding with the tail end of a comet or an asteroid,” she explains. “We get all these teeny tiny pieces that burn up in the atmosphere of the Earth and put on a gorgeous show for us.”
Faherty says it’s important to note that we know when meteor showers are going to happen, because the same ones appear at the same time every year. “The Earth is orbiting around the sun, and the comets and the asteroids are doing the same thing,” she explains. “They’re going around the sun in the same path every year, and so every year we pass the debris around the same time.”
As for the Perseids, the origin of the meteor shower is a comet called the Swift-Tuttle, which takes 133 years to orbit Earth. Meteor showers are often named for the constellations in which they appear to radiate from — in this case the Perseus constellation — however, the show won’t just come from the area of that constellation, says Faherty, noting, “A great fireball can come from any direction.”
Advice for watching the Perseids
Find a dark, open sky
Faherty says the first thing you need for a successful viewing of the Perseids is a dark, open sky.
“You want to have a huge swath of the sky that you can look at,” she says. “So, for instance, forests tend to be nice and dark, but they are a terrible place to watch the meteor shower, because there are trees that block your line of sight.”
Faherty recommends finding an area like a field or a beach, where there’s very little light pollution and a whole lot of sky in view.
“Find a field or beach that's very, very dark where you don't have a lot of city light pollution, or if you do, turn the other way and don't look towards the light,” Faherty advises, “The sky will be brighter in [that area], and it also changes your ability to see fainter objects because brighter lights will deter you as your pupils adjust.”
What if you live in a city? Faherty says your best bet is finding your way to a rooftop so you can see as much as the sky as possible, and do whatever you can to block any bright lights from making their way into your view. “When I lived in Washington, DC, I would go up to the rooftop of my building and cover all of the, the lights that they would put outside up there,” Faherty says. So, city dwellers might have to get a little creative.
Beware of the moon
“The other elephant in the room is the moon,” Faherty tells Yahoo Life. “The moon is like a lightbulb in the sky, and depending on its stage, it can outshine the whole sky.”
Faherty says that lucky for us, the moon is in a later stage, meaning we’re not as flooded with moonlight. But she still suggest trying to avoid the moon altogether.
“On August 11th, moonrise is at 12:24 AM E.T. and on August 12th is at 12:59 AM E.T., which means that you will have that time before that to get outside without moonlight getting in the way,” Faherty explains.
Heading out after the sun sets, once the sky is nice and dark, is the perfect time to try to catch some fireballs.
And if you can’t avoid the moon being out while you’re viewing, Faherty recommends simply turning your back towards it. “Look in the other direction, and get the moon blocked from your view,” she says. “But you should 100 percent avoid the moon if you can.”
Give it time
Faherty says the beauty of meteor showers is that no telescopes or binoculars are necessary, “All you need is your eyeballs and patience.”
“You need to be out there, I would say, for a minimum of two hours,” Faherty says. “If you have to go to super minimum, go at the very least 30 minutes, because you need at least 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust and then you have to give nature a chance to inspire you.”
Faherty suggests giving the Perseids the same respect you would a good movie. “The nighttime sky is the original movie theater, it’s is the original Netflix,” she says, “Bring popcorn, bring a glass of wine, and give it a good two hours.”
The astronomer says she always makes a point to get outside and watch the Perseids, and that, year after, year she’s blown away by the stunning and daunting light show in the sky. “It's a great opportunity to enjoy nature as your entertainment,” she says.