At a Glance
- The 2020 Perseid meteor shower peaks after midnight on the morning of 12 August. You might also see a few meteors the evening of the 11th, and at night for a couple days before and after.
- To watch, go to the darkest place you can, let your eyes adjust for several minutes, and then look directly overhead.
- The Perseids get their name from the constellation Perseus, the spot from which they seem to originate. They're actually debris from comet Swift-Tuttle, which last swung through the inner solar system in 1992 and won't return for 133 years.
Our journey to know the cosmos and our place within it starts right outside our windows, in the night sky. Get weekly sky charts, see upcoming celestial events, and become a better backyard observer.
The annual Perseid meteor shower is popular with northern hemispherians, since it's summertime and a great time to go outside. However, anyone on Earth can enjoy them! The 2020 shower peaks after midnight and before dawn on 12 August. Unfortunately, the last-quarter Moon will rise around midnight, too, rendering some of the fainter meteors invisible. Nevertheless, from a dark sky site, you still might be able to see 40 or 50 meteors per hour.
What is a meteor?
Meteors are streaks of light in the sky caused by space stuff (a technical term) burning up as it hits the Earth's upper atmosphere at very high speeds (tens of kilometers per second). That space stuff usually consists of small dust and sand-sized dirt and rocks. Even these small particles can cause streaks of light you can see from the ground at night. As an approximation, the bigger the dirt that hits, the brighter the light. Space is full of this dust; on a typical night from a dark location, you might see up to 10 meteors per hour—no meteor shower required!
What is a meteor shower?
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through debris shed by a comet that flew through the inner solar system sometime in the past. They reoccur at about the same time every year, when Earth comes around in its orbit and passes through the comet dust again.
Two of the best meteor showers of the year are the Perseids, which peak around 12 or 13 August, and the Geminids, which peak near 13 and 14 December. The Perseids often get more media attention because they occur during the northern hemisphere summer. However, the Geminids typically produce more meteors.
Meteor showers are named after the constellation that contains the radiant of the shower. The radiant is where the meteors appear to emanate from—if you draw a line back along the meteors, all of the lines will meet at the same point. This is an effect of the Earth speeding through the comet debris, meaning when you see a meteor, you're seeing direct evidence of our planet orbiting the Sun!
How to watch a meteor shower
All you need to watch a meteor shower is your eyes, patience, and a (mostly) cloud-free night. Go out, get comfortable, and stare at the sky. Typically the best time
to see a meteor shower is between midnight and pre-dawn, because that's when you are on the leading side of the Earth, watching the comet debris come at you like rain hitting a car windshield.
You don’t have to stare in the direction of the radiant; in fact, meteors farther away from it will appear longer. It is often said that an ideal place to look is 45 degrees away from the radiant, but the most important factor is getting to a dark location away from city lights, letting your eyes adjust for several minutes, and looking at the darkest patch of sky you can.
Go out, look up at the night sky and have fun!