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Look Up! Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks Tonight

11 Aug 2016, 6:03 pm

August’s Perseid meteor shower peaks for U.S. observers just after sunrise on Friday morning, August 12. It should also put on a great show this year for observers in Europe, with some predictions showing an outburst of up to 150 or 200 meteors at the peak, according to NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke. U.S. observers will get a great view of the ramp up to the peak between moonset and sunrise on Friday morning, August 12 according to NASA.

Will there be an outburst or a second peak as in some past years? Watch and see.

This 2015 Perseid rate graph (compiled from data received from over 350 observers in 37 countries) shows rates of up to 20 meteors per hour the week before the peak. Rates increase to 40 per hour up to the day of the peak, making the Perseids the best public-friendly shower of the year. The maximum peak is very short, lasting just a few hours from 13:00 to 15:30 UTC the morning of August 12. That’s 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time and 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, well after the sun has risen in the U.S.

Meteor rates are not the actual number of meteors you will see in a given hour, but rather the number you will see if the radiant of the shower is overhead (the zenith), your skies are dark, your eyesight is perfect, and you can see all of the celestial sphere above your head. It’s a way to standardize all observations from different sky and observer conditions around the world.

2015 Perseids meteor rates. Image: NASA
2015 Perseids meteor rates. Image: NASA

A good number of meteors should be visible radiating from Perseus every night from July 17 to August 24. However, you’ll see fewer meteors before and after the peak from 13:00 – 15:30 UTC. Look toward the familiar constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus in the northeast. They begin to rise after sunset, but more meteors will be visible when they are higher in the sky several hours later. The best meteor watching will start at midnight, and will be better still after moonset an hour later. It will extend to when dawn brightens the sky (before 5 a.m. local time) on the morning of August 12. The peak is still a few hours away for U.S. observers, favoring observers in Europe, but increased rates will be visible from a dark sky away from city lights. Rates will ramp up but not reach peak from the U.S.

If you want to observe the shower at a more comfortable hour before midnight, just look away from the moon, or sit in a place where the moon is blocked. Dedicated observers with a camera mounted on their telescope may capture the moon’s Earth-lit night side and may catch flashes due to Perseid meteoroid impacts on its northern hemisphere.


Lots to see: Look north for meteors; south for planets and the moon. – Image: NASA
Lots to see: Look north for meteors; south for planets and the moon. – Image: NASA

About the Meteor Shower
The Perseids, which peak during mid-August, are considered the best meteor shower of the year. With very fast and bright meteors, Perseids frequently leave long “wakes” of light and color behind them as they streak through Earth’s atmosphere. The Perseids are one of the most plentiful showers (50-100 meteors seen per hour) and occur with warm summer nighttime weather, allowing sky watchers to easily view them.

Perseids are also known for their fireballs. Fireballs are larger explosions of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak. This is due to the fact that fireballs originate from larger particles of cometary material. Fireballs are also brighter, with apparent magnitudes greater than -3.

Viewing Tips
The Perseids are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere during the pre-dawn hours, though at times it is possible to view meteors from this shower as early as 10 p.m.

In this ten-second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky above Washington, DC during the annual Perseid meteor shower, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Arlington, Va. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)
In this ten-second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky above Washington, DC during the annual Perseid meteor shower, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Arlington, Va. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Find an area well away from city or street lights, and if you want, set up where you are shadowed from the moon’s glare before it sets. Come prepared with a sleeping bag, blanket or lawn chair. Face whatever direction you like, the one unobstructed by trees, buildings or moonlight. Look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. If you have a group, each person should look in different parts of the sky. After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt, and you will begin to see fainter objects, including meteors. Be patient; the show will last until dawn, so you have plenty of time to catch a glimpse.

Where Do Meteors Come From?
Meteors come from leftover comet particles and bits from broken asteroids. When comets come around the sun, they leave a dusty trail behind them. Every year Earth passes through these debris trails, which allows the bits to collide with our atmosphere and disintegrate to create fiery and colorful streaks in the sky.

The Comet
The pieces of space debris that interact with our atmosphere to create the Perseids originate from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle takes 133 years to orbit the sun once. It was Giovanni Schiaparelli who realized in 1865 that this comet was the source of the Perseids. Comet Swift-Tuttle last visited the inner solar system in 1992.

Comet Swift-Tuttle was discovered in 1862 by Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle is a large comet: its nucleus is 16 miles (26 km) across. (This is almost twice the size of the object hypothesized to have led to the demise of the dinosaurs.)

The Radiant
Their radiant — the point in the sky from which the Perseids appear to come from — is the constellation Perseus. This is also where we get the name for the shower: Perseids. However, the constellation for which a meteor shower is named only serves to aid viewers in determining which shower they are viewing on a given night. The constellation is not the source of the meteors.

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