Get Ready for Peak Perseid Meteor Shower

Public Domain. NASA

Here's how to get the most out of it.

Meteor showers happen on a regular basis all year round, but there is nothing like the Perseids. Every year, the Earth moves through the trail of debris that follows the comet Swift-Tuttle and puts on a show of what are inaccurately called shooting stars. For us, it is a family tradition.

In these days of such short attention spans, the Perseids are a fun family event; on a good night you can see one per minute. The Perseids are reliable and happen at a time of year when the weather is nice.

2019 might not be the best ever but as Bob King of Sky and Telescope notes,

The waxing gibbous Moon may make a mess of this year's Perseids, but I'll still be out there. Even a full Moon can't kill the year's most anticipated meteor shower. Reduce the numbers, yes, but you're guaranteed to see at least a few. I can't wait to ease into that recliner and watch the sparks fly.

The meteor shower is called the Perseids because they seem to radiate from the constellation Perseus, in the Northeast sky. (See a Sky and Telescope sky map here). But they are all over the sky -- they just seem to all come from that point.

perseid location image

How to watch the Perseids

Find the darkest spot you can find, preferably out of town. I think there should be municipal announcements to turn off outside lights, especially around parks, to make it easier for people in cities to really enjoy this too. Perhaps ban cars for the night to eliminate all those headlights. (I am down for any reason to ban cars, and this is a good one!) NASA says you will see about three times as many meteors in a dark sky.

Find a spot with as good a view as you can get to the Northeast. If you cannot, don’t worry too much. They are all over the sky; you just might not see as many.

Get comfy. Bring a lawn chair. We are at a cabin in Canada and go out on the dock with cushions and sleeping bags.

Don’t get too comfy. I have fallen asleep under the stars many times.

Give yourself half an hour to let your eyes adjust. This is important. It is why you absolutely, unconditionally, no excuses, MUST LEAVE YOUR PHONE far away. This is increasingly hard for people; the idea of just lying on the ground staring at the sky for an event that happens about once a minute -- the time it takes to scan 30 tweets -- now seems foreign to me.

Just glancing at your phone sets your eyes back to zero when it comes to adjusting to the dark. Some sites suggest you bring your camera to try and get some time lapse videos, but this is not an Instagram moment. It won’t work and will ruin your evening. Don’t do it.

Fun with the kids

Much depends on the kids. Do you stay up and start early? There are meteors as early as ten at night, but the sky is not totally dark. Spouse and TreeHugger emeritus Kelly reminds me that we tried setting the alarm clock for 1:00 AM and our son, a solid sleeper, would just refuse to wake up, and complained the next morning, “MOM! You were supposed to wake me up!” Usually we were all there on a four-foot-wide dock and neighbours would learn it was a Perseid night when they could hear all over the lake “HE TOOK MY SPACE” or “SHE STOLE MY PILLOW!”

Keep it basic. Forget coffee, treats, things you need a light to see. We tried cocoa one cool night and it all got spilled and we were turning on lights to find out who got soaked and it was a mess.

It is all about relaxing and looking at the sky. We made it a challenge; everyone has to count how many they see, and whoever sees the most wins.

Perseid Meteor

Wikipedia/ Perseid meteor by Brocken Inaglory/CC BY 2.0

Sometimes they are little and seem to be gone in a millisecond; other times they streak across the entire sky and seem to hang for seconds. Sometimes it seems like you have been sitting for half an hour seeing nothing; other times they seem to be popping out everywhere like fireworks. This can be hard on the kids; instead of outbursts of meteors, we often got outbursts of whining about how few meteors there actually were. It’s totally random, but it is totally fun.

So grab a pillow, a blanket and the family and look up at the sky on Monday night or early Tuesday morning, which might be the best; the moon sets between 3 AM and 4AM, so there is a bit of time before sunrise. And take the advice we quoted a few years ago from EarthSky:

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.

This post was written in 2018, and is updated for 2019.