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Peak night for the Perseid meteor shower on August 12-13

Perseid meteor 2013 via Barry Simmons at Lake Martin, Alabama.  Notice the colors!

Tonight for August 12, 2014

Image top of post: Perseid meteor 2013 via Barry Simmons at Lake Martin, Alabama. Notice the colors. The Perseids are known to be colorful meteors.

The 2014 Perseid meteor shower should be at its prolific best from late night August 12 until dawn August 13! Great times to watch: after midnight and before dawn. Keep in mind, however, that a bright waning gibbous moon will subdue the number of meteors that are visible in 2014. On a dark, moonless night, you can often see 50 or more Perseid meteors per hour. If you’re game, give the shower a try anyway, for we expect to see the brighter Perseids, despite the moon.

The Perseids are a summertime classic. They’re a favorite for Northern Hemisphere viewers, though this shower can also be watched from tropical and subtropical latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere as well. Because the moon rises at early evening, the moonlight will obtrude on this year’s Perseid meteor display. Even so, find a dark, open sky far away from the harsh glare of city lights, lie down comfortably on a reclining lawn chair and enjoy the show. You don’t need to know the constellations. You don’t need special equipment. Simply look up to watch Perseid meteors streaking the nighttime sky. As seen from around the world, the most meteors usually fall in the wee hours before dawn.

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

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

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. 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 paths of the Perseid meteors, when traced backward, appear to originate from the constellation Perseus. Hence, this meteor shower’s name. However, you don’t have to know the constellation Perseus to watch the Perseid meteor shower, for the Perseids fly every which way across the starry heavens. 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 that you’re likely to see.

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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 and you may still see a sprinkling of Perseids.

The earliest historical account of Perseid activity comes from a Chinese record in 36AD, 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.

On a moonless night, the Perseids commonly produce 50 or more meteors per hour in our Northern Hemisphere sky. The waning gibbous moon shining for early evening until dawn will dampen the 2014 Perseid shower, but the summertime classic should offer a splattering of meteors anyway. Moreover, as darkness begins to give way to dawn, be sure to view the the sky’s two brightest planets, Venus and Jupiter.

The planets Venus and Jupiter adorn the dawn sky in August 2014.  Although the sky chart is for Thursday, August 14, the planets will look similar on Wednesday, August 13. Read more

The planets Venus and Jupiter adorn the dawn sky in August 2014. Although the sky chart is for Thursday, August 14, the planets will look similar on Wednesday, August 13. Read more

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.

Bottom line: The best viewing hours for the 2014 Perseid meteors will probably be from about 2 a.m. until dawn on 13!

EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2014

How to find the radiant point for Perseid metors

August 2014 guide to the five visible planets