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Perseids peak. What to expect

Tonight – the night of August 11-12, 2016 – is the expected peak of the 2016 Perseid meteor shower. Watch from late night August 11 until dawn August 12. There is a possible outburst expected in 2016. Read more about the Perseid outburst here. If you do see the Perseids in outburst, you’ll see about double the usual rates, or about 200 meteors per hour. But you can expect the Perseids to put on a good show, outburst or no outburst.

Here are some tips:

Watch after midnight and before dawn.

Watch from a country location, to get the most from the Perseids.

Watch in a dark, open sky far away from the harsh glare of city lights

Watch for the meteors’ colors. The Perseids are known to be colorful meteors. See the colors in Perseid meteor in the photo by Barry Simmons of Alabama, at the top of this post?

Watch for fireballs, or bright meteors. According to NASA’s Meteoroid Office, the Perseids have more fireballs than any other major shower.

Watch for the moon. Although the moon will light up the evening hours, it will set way before the predawn hours, at which time the Perseid meteors fly most abundantly. However, before these prime time viewing hours, why not use the moon to locate the planets Mars and Saturn at nightfall? See the chart below.

Click here for more tips on watching this year’s Perseid shower.

As evening falls on August 10, 11 and 12, the waxing gibbous moon will be shining near planets Mars and Saturn, and the star Antares. The green line depicts the ecliptic - the sun's yearly path and the moon's monthly path in front of the constellations of the Zodiac. The moon will set before the predawn hours on August 11, 12 and 13,  at which time the Perseid meteors  streak the nighttime most abundantly.

As evening falls on August 10, 11 and 12, the waxing gibbous moon will be shining near planets Mars and Saturn, and the star Antares. The moon will set before the predawn hours on these nights, at which time the Perseid meteors streak the nighttime most abundantly.

What a beautiful sight these meteors can be, streaking along in a moon-free sky, in front of the age-old constellations. The best way to watch is to lie down comfortably on a reclining lawn chair. Just relax, look up and enjoy the show.

The Perseids are a particular favorite for Northern Hemisphere viewers. For us, they’re a summertime classic. But this this shower can also be watched from tropical and subtropical latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere as well.

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Bobby D'Esposito Jr. caught this meteor over Long Island, New York on August 8, 2016.

Bobby D’Esposito Jr. caught this colorful meteor over Long Island, New York on August 8, 2016. He wrote: “With meteors in mind, I set up at the south shore of East Moriches, Long Island. Test one, ISO too low. Test two, nailed it… It was actually that easy! Gotta love it. Thanks EarthSky, for running one of the coolest and most accurate/user friendly astronomy websites to date. Wishing everyone clear skies this Perseids!” See more 2016 Perseid meteor photos here.

From the Northern Hemisphere, you can see a smattering of Perseid meteors in the evening hours. The meteors tend to be few and far between at mid-evening, though this presents the best time of night to try to catch an earthgrazer – an elongated, long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky. Earthgrazers are rare but most memorable if you’re lucky enough to spot one.

What if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere? From the Southern Hemisphere, the first meteors – and possible earthgrazers – won’t be flying until midnight or the wee hours of the morning.

In either the Northern or the Southern Hemisphere, the greatest number of meteors streak the sky in the few hours before dawn.

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The Perseid meteors are even visible in the Southern Hemisphere, although the numbers are not as high. Photo credit: ESO/S. Guisard

Some Perseid meteors will be visible in the Southern Hemisphere, although the numbers will not be as high. Photo via the European Southern Observatory/S. Guisard

The paths of the Perseid meteors, when traced backward, appear to originate from the constellation Perseus. Hence, this meteor shower’s name.

But you don’t need to know the constellation Perseus to watch the Perseid meteor shower, for the Perseids fly every which way across the starry heavens.

Here’s all you do need to know about the radiant point. As viewed from the Northern Hemisphere, the radiant sits low in the northeast sky at evening and climbs upward throughout the night. The higher that the radiant is in your sky, the more Perseid meteors you’re likely to see. For the Perseids, the radiant is highest before dawn.

That last is true for the Southern Hemisphere, although, from there, the radiant of the Perseid meteor shower never gets very high in the sky. That’s why more meteors are seen at northerly latitudes. But if you’re game, look northward in the wee hours before dawn and you may still see a sprinkling of Perseids.

How to find the radiant point for Perseid meteors

The constellation Perseus, radiant for the annual Perseid meteor shower

The constellation Perseus, radiant for the annual Perseid meteor shower

The earliest historical account of Perseid activity comes from a Chinese record in 36 AD, where it was said that “more than 100 meteors flew in the morning.” Numerous references to the August Perseids appear in Chinese, Japanese and Korean records throughout the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. Meanwhile, according to ancient western skylore, the Perseid shower commemorates the time when the god Zeus visited the mortal maiden Danae in the form of a shower of gold. Zeus and Danae became the parents of Perseus the Hero – from whose constellation the Perseid meteors radiate.

The Perseid meteors happen around this time every year, as Earth in its orbit crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Dusty debris left behind by this comet smashes into Earth’s upper atmosphere, lighting up the nighttime as fiery Perseid meteors. The meteors start out slowly in the evening hours, begin to pick up steam after midnight and put out the greatest numbers in the dark hours before dawn.

The nice video above is also from 2014’s shower, from the Sociedad de Astronomía del Caribe (Astronomical Society of the Caribbean).

Bottom line: The mornings around August 12 should be good as well, but we give the nod to this morning as the best time to watch 2016’s Perseid meteor shower.

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2016

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Bruce McClure

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