In the Northern Hemisphere, the annual August Perseid meteor shower probably ranks as the all-time favorite meteor shower of the year. This major shower takes place during the lazy, hazy days of summer, when many families are on vacation. And what could be more luxurious than taking a siesta in the heat of the day and watching this summertime classic in the relative coolness of night?
No matter where you live worldwide, the 2018 Perseid meteor shower will probably produce the greatest number of meteors this coming weekend – on the mornings of August 11, 12 and 13. In a dark, moonless sky, this shower often produces 50 or more meteors per hour. And this year, in 2018, there will be no moonlight to ruin the show.
When and how should I watch the Perseid meteor shower in 2018? The best showing will probably be during the predawn hours on August 12 and/or 13. Perseid numbers often reach 50 or more meteors per hour. Two years ago, in 2016, there was an outburst, with the rate doubling for some observers on Earth. We don’t know of any outburst for 2018 – but, then, you really never know for sure unless you watch!
The Perseid meteor shower is known to rise to a peak gradually, over several weeks, and then fall off rapidly in the days following the shower. Will you see meteors on Tuesday morning, August 14? Possibly…
Also remember, the the Delta Aquarid meteor shower is still rambling along steadily. You’ll see mostly Perseids but also a few Delta Aquarids in the mix.
No matter how many meteors you see, you might see something, and it might be a lot of fun.
In a typical year, although the meteor numbers increase after midnight, the Perseid meteors still start to fly at mid-to-late evening from northerly latitudes. South of the equator, the Perseids start to streak the sky around midnight.
Find a dark spot away from pesky artificial lights, and an open view of sky.
Don’t rule out early evenings, either. As a general rule, the Perseid meteors tend to be few and far between at nightfall and early evening. Yet, if fortune smiles upon you, you could catch an earthgrazer – a looooong, slow, colorful meteor traveling horizontally across the evening sky. Earthgrazer meteors are rare but memorable. Perseid earthgrazers can only appear at early to mid-evening, when the radiant point of the shower is close to the horizon.
Find a dark, open sky to enjoy the show. An open sky is essential because these meteors fly across the sky in many different directions and in front of numerous constellations.
Give yourself at least an hour of observing time, for these meteors in meteor showers come in spurts and are interspersed with lulls. Remember, your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night. So don’t rush the process.
Know that the meteors all come from a single point in the sky. If you trace the paths of the Perseid meteors backwards, you’d find they all come from a point in front of the constellation Perseus. Don’t worry about which stars are Perseus. Just enjoying knowing and observing that they all come from one place on the sky’s dome.
Enjoy the comfort of a reclining lawn chair. Bring along some other things you might enjoy also, like a thermos filled with a hot drink.
Remember … all good things come to those who wait. Meteors are part of nature. There’s no way to predict exactly how many you’ll see on any given night. Find a good spot, watch, wait.
You’ll see some.
What’s the source of the Perseid meteor shower? Every year, from around July 17 to August 24, our planet Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle, the parent of the Perseid meteor shower. Debris from this comet litters the comet’s orbit, but we don’t really get into the thick of the comet rubble until after the first week of August. The bits and pieces from Comet Swift-Tuttle slam into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at some 130,000 miles (210,000 km) per hour, lighting up the nighttime with fast-moving Perseid meteors.
If our planet happens to pass through an unusually dense clump of meteoroids – comet rubble – we’ll see an elevated number of meteors. We can always hope!
Comet Swift-Tuttle has a very eccentric – oblong – orbit that takes this comet outside the orbit of Pluto when farthest from the sun, and inside the Earth’s orbit when closest to the sun. It orbits the sun in a period of about 133 years. Every time this comet passes through the inner solar system, the sun warms and softens up the ices in the comet, causing it to release fresh comet material into its orbital stream.
Comet Swift-Tuttle last reached perihelion – closest point to the sun – in December 1992 and will do so next in July 2126.
What is the radiant point for the Perseid meteor shower? If you trace all the Perseid meteors backward, they all seem to come from the constellation Perseus, near the famous Double Cluster. Hence, the meteor shower is named in the honor of the constellation Perseus the Hero.
However, this is a chance alignment of the meteor shower radiant with the constellation Perseus. The stars in Perseus are light-years distant while these meteors burn up about 100 kilometers (60 miles) above the Earth’s surface. If any meteor survives its fiery plunge to hit the ground intact, the remaining portion is called a meteorite. Few – if any – meteors in meteor showers become meteorites, however, because of the flimsy nature of comet debris. Most meteorites are the remains of asteroids.
In ancient Greek star lore, Perseus is the son of the god Zeus and the mortal Danae. It is said that the Perseid shower commemorates the time when Zeus visited Danae, the mother of Perseus, in a shower of gold.
Bottom line: The 2018 Perseid meteor shower is expected to produce the most meteors in the predawn hours this weekend – on August 11, 12, and 13.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.