I'm always amazed by all the everyday folks, with no particular skywatching experience, who know about — and look forward to — the Perseid meteor shower each August.

You actually won't see several at once!

The Perseid meteors appear to stream away from the shower's "radiant" point near the border of Perseus and Cassiopeia. This is the perspective point where they would all appear to be coming from if you could see them approaching in the far distance. In fact we see them only in the last second or two as they streak into Earth's upper atmosphere, and this can happen anywhere in your sky. Under dark-sky conditions, you may see an average of one a minute around the time of the shower's peak.

Sky & Telescope illustration

This annual event is justifiably well known. First, it's one of the year's best meteor displays, dependably offering more than one "shooting star" per minute under clear, dark skies. Also, showtime begins early, an hour or more before midnight, as soon as the radiant (near the Double Cluster in Perseus) clears the horizon. Finally, the shower is rich in larger-than-average particles shed over the years by its parent comet, 109P/Swift-Tuttle, and these typically deliver a crowd-pleasing salvo of bright, colorful streaks.

This year's maximum is predicted for 6:00 Universal Time on the morning of August 13th. That means you'll see the most meteors on the evening of Friday, August 12th, and early Saturday morning. Unfortunately, August's full Moon occurs just a half day later. So on the night of the shower's maximum you'll be fighting bright Moonlight from dusk until dawn.

But don't let the big, bad Moon scare you off — you'll still see a fair number of the brightest Perseids despite the strong moonlight. And start watching now, on the nights leading up to maximum, for early arrivals. While skywatching from a dark site in Maine last week, I saw a few Perseids each hour. Observing reports reaching the International Meteor Organization show that since then the count has risen to 15 or 20 per hour.


Image of Anthony Barreiro

Anthony Barreiro

August 11, 2011 at 10:42 am

A couple more reasons why the Perseids are so popular with the general public: you don't need any special equipment, and you don't need to know where to look, other than "up". A night watching the Perseids from a dark location presents a great opportunity to educate people about the night sky -- the summer Milky Way, stars, and constellations, the waxing and waning of the moon, and maybe a planet or two.

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Stephen Botel

August 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Sadly for 2011 all the major meteor showers are all spoiled by the moon including the best shower, the Geminids...

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Kathy Miner

August 12, 2011 at 8:00 pm

The Perseids are great, moon or not! When our sons, who are now in their 30s, were growing up, we would drive out into the country and lie down in a field to watch the "falling stars". It was always right around the date of our wedding anniversary, so it was easy for us to remember.

Last year our first grandchild was born on Aug. 12, right at the peak of the Perseids! The night after he was born, I went outside and watched again. I will forever have that association now. In a few years it will become what we do for his birthday!

We have also tried to watch the Leonids, but we live in Wisconsin, and August (except for mosquitoes) is a MUCH "friendlier" time for lying on the ground than November is. For the Leonids we have to take sleeping bags.

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G. Martin

August 13, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Another reason for the popularity of the Perseids -- they occur during Summer! You don't have to freeze your toocas off to observe.

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Robert Wendel

August 14, 2011 at 4:05 pm

On Saturday morning, about 1 AM observing from an upper Manhattan roof deck, we saw a "rogue" meteor due west at about 25 degrees elevation, traveling a short distance towards Perseus. It was quite bright, slow, and definitely green in color, and from trajectory, I'd say it passed directly over east central PA. Were there any other reports of this quite bright meteor? It was not a fireball or bollide, but very bright.

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