Each year in August, the Perseid meteor shower faithfully appears in the night sky. Here’s what you need to take advantage of this spectacular opportunity in 2020!
When can the Perseid meteor shower be observed?
The Perseid meteor shower runs from July 15th to August 25th, and it is particularly intense from August 10th to the 14th. It’s expected peak period for 2020 is the night of August 12th to the 13th. During this time, the Moon will be visible from the middle to the end of the night; this will hinder observation and make dimmer shooting stars nearly invisible. It is therefore best to plan to observe during the earlier part of the night, before the Moon rises. These times are:
until midnight (CET) on the night of August 9th to 10th; until midnight (CET) on the night of August 10th to 11th; until 1am (CET) on the night of August 11th to 12th; until 1:30am (CET) on the night of August 12th to 13th.
If you’d like to observe the Perseid meteor shower after the Moon has risen, you might want to stand behind a building or a bunch of trees to block it out, since our satellite does not get very high in the sky during this time of year. Also, make sure to turn towards the northeast to observe (though the shooting stars appear a bit everywhere in the sky).
How many shooting stars can be seen?
Though it is called the Perseid meteor shower, most of what you will see when gazing will technically be shooting stars. When it is at its peak, and depending on the year, between 70 and 100 shooting stars can occur per hour. In theory, that is more than one shooting star per minute! But this is really only in theory, since some of these shooting stars aren’t very bright and, because we cannot watch the entire sky all at once, we miss out on a lot. Fortunately, with a little patience, you’ll be rewarded. If you keep your eyes peeled for at least fifteen minutes straight, you’ll be sure to catch a glimpse of at least one or two gorgeous shooting stars! And if you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to see many at the same time or even a bona fide meteoroid! This burning space rock entering Earth’s atmosphere is, in essence, a particularly long and bright shooting star that can be seen for several seconds.
Where do I observe? And in which direction?
Find a comfortable place to sit or lie in a clear, open space away from light pollution (like streetlamps or floodlights). Make sure you can easily observe a large part of the sky. And then just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show! The shooting stars seem to generally hail from a point called the radiant in the constellation Perseus. This is where the name Perseid comes from. The Perseus constellation is low in the sky in the early evening and gets higher during the night.
But, in reality, the Perseids can be quite far from Perseus—which can be seen in the photo at the top of this article. So, it doesn’t matter much where you look, you should just observe as much of the sky as you can.
Where do these shooting stars come from?
Every year, the orbits of Earth and Comet Swift-Tuttle cross, and our planet passes through the cloud of dust and pebbles this celestial body leaves behind. Some of this debris enters the Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds (31 miles, or 50 km per second) and burns up to create beautiful light trails in the sky—otherwise known as shooting stars! A shooting star usually lasts only a fraction of a second, so spotting one depends on a lot of luck. However, the Perseid meteor shower is a great opportunity for you to see one! The animated graph below shows the trajectory of the debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle. It is this cloud of debris that Earth passes through each year in August (its orbit is shown in blue). Change perspective by clicking and dragging with the mouse. You can zoom in or out with the scroll wheel.
Graph from meteorshowers.org.
By Bertrand d'Armagnac & Carine Souplet. Updated: July 28th, 2020.
Translated by Natalie Worden