In 2017, the legendary Perseid meteor shower – the Northern Hemisphere’s best summertime meteor shower – is expected to produce the greatest number of meteors between midnight and dawn on the mornings of August 12 and 13. The morning of August 11 might be good as well. This year, however, there is a bright waning gibbous moon in the sky all three mornings. This bright moon will obliterate all but the brightest Perseid meteors. Here’s how to minimize the moon and optimize the 2017 Perseid meteors.
By the way, there’s a rumor going around that 2017’s Perseid meteor shower will be the best in 96 years. It’s not true.
1. Try observing in the evening hours, on the nights of August 10, 11 or 12. After full moon on August 7, the moon will be rising later each night. Watch as late at night as you can, but before moonrise. Click here for a custom sunrise/sunset calendar – click box for moonrise/moonset times. You won’t see as many meteors during the evening hours, but you still might catch an earthgrazer, which is a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky. If you see one, you’ll have a new appreciation for evening meteor-watching.
2. Or … watch in moonlight between midnight and dawn. Most meteor showers are best after midnight, and the Perseids are no exception. After midnight, the part of Earth you’re standing on has turned into the meteor stream, which means the radiant point for the shower will be above your horizon. After the radiant rises, more meteors are flying … unfortunately, in 2017, in the light of the moon.
3. Sprawl out in a moon shadow. When the moon is up around the shower’s peak dates, it’ll be casting looooong shadows in the sky around late night and early morning. Find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides you with a wide expanse of sky for meteor-viewing. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to block out the moon would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a wide open field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn or other building. Ensconced within a moon shadow, and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens while the meteors brighten.
4. Avoid city lights. This should go without saying, but just a reminder. A wide open area – a field or a lonely country road – is best if you’re serious about watching meteors.
5. Watch with friend or friends, and try facing in different directions so that if someone sees a meteor, that person can call out – “meteor!” – to the rest.
6. Notice the speed and colors, if any, of the meteors. The Perseids are known to be colorful, although the moonlight will drown out their color in 2017. But it won’t affect their speed! The Perseids are swift-moving, entering Earth’s atmosphere at about 35 miles per second (60 km per second).
7. Watch for meteor trains. A meteor train is a persistent glow in the air, left by some meteors after they have faded from view. Trains are caused by luminous ionized matter left in the wake of this incoming space debris. A good percentage of Perseids are known to leave persistent trains. They linger for a moment or two after the meteor has gone. Again, hard to see in the moonlight, but watch for them!
8. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere … watch! At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the radiant of the Perseid meteor shower never gets very high in the sky. Therefore, the number of Perseid meteors seen from this part of the world isn’t as great as at more northerly latitudes. But if you’re game, look northward in the wee hours before dawn on August 11, 12 and 13, and you might still see a decent display of Perseids.
9. At the end of the Perseid shower, look for Venus. As dawn breaks, a bright planet will be ascending in the east before dawn. That’ll be Venus, third-brightest object in Earth’s sky after the sun and moon.
10. Embrace the moon. We hear people bubble with excitement about seeing meteors in all sorts of conditions – moon or no moon – city lights or no city lights. The Perseids, in particular, tend to have a lot of fireballs. And so, around the nights of the shower, try taking your lawn chair or blanket to a wide open location and bask in the moon’s bright light. You’ll see an occasional fireball streak by. It’ll be beautiful!
Meteors are also called shooting stars, but they have nothing to do with actual stars. Instead, they start out as bits of dust left behind in space by a comet. The Perseid meteor shower peaks annually at this time of year, as our planet Earth passes through the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Even though this comet is now moving in the outer solar system, the stream of rubble trailing Swift-Tuttle extends for hundreds of millions of kilometers in space. For several weeks from late July to mid-August, debris left behind by this comet slams into Earth’s atmosphere. The fragments vaporize as they fall through our atmosphere, and the result is the Perseid meteor shower.
The cool visualization below uses NASA data to render known Perseid meteoroids – that is, debris left in space by Comet Swift-Tuttle – in our solar system.
Bottom line: A waning gibbous moon will do its best to drown out the 2017 Perseid meteor shower. Here are 6 tips for enjoying the moonlit Perseid meteors in 2017.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.