Want to see a shooting star? Perseid meteor shower underway

Grab a blanket, head to a location where the sky is dark and look up. The best show of the year — the Perseid meteor shower — is upon us.

This year's shower peaks on the night of Aug. 12-13

A Perseid meteor streaks over Starfest, a star party held annually in southwestern Ontario each August, in 2014. This year, the Perseids meteor shower will peak on the night of Aug. 12-13. (Malcolm Park)

Grab a blanket, head to a location where the sky is dark and look up: the Perseid meteor shower is upon us.

Based on the time of year and the number of potential "shooting stars" you could see, the Perseids are arguably the best meteor shower of the year.

On any given night, you can turn your eyes skyward and see a meteor streak across the sky — but they will be few and far between. But during a meteor shower, the chance of catching one of these bright flashes increases, as Earth plows through dust and debris left over from a passing comet, or possibly an asteroid. (The latter is not as common.)

This interactive from meteorshowers.org allows you to see how Earth moves through the particles left over from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle:

Those tiny grains of dust and rock burn up as they enter Earth's atmosphere, producing the bright streaks we see.

Major meteor showers occur almost every month. Here in Canada, we get two of the best: the Geminids and the Perseids.

The Geminids occur in December, when it's cold and often cloudy. That leaves the Perseids — right at the height of summer — as your best chance to see what's likely to be quite a few meteors.

When talking about how many visible meteors can be expected in an hour, astronomers refer to the zenithal hourly rate, or ZHR. Specifically, it references how many meteors you can expect to see when the radiant — or apparent area in the sky from which the meteors originate — is directly above you with a perfectly clear, dark sky. 

A composite image of Perseid meteors in 2015 is shown. (Malcolm Park)

The Geminids can produce as many as 120 meteors an hour on its peak night, while the Perseids can produce upward of 100 or so. 

For the upcoming peak of the Perseids, while it's unlikely you'll have ideal skies, you could expect somewhere between 50 and 75 if it's clear and dark.

And keep an eye out for colour: the Perseids are known to produce colourful meteors.

Observation tips

Meteor showers take place over a few days or weeks, so you have a number of nights to enjoy them.

The Perseid show is already under way — it began in the middle of July — and will extend until the end of August.

But for every meteor shower, there's a peak night — and the Perseids' peak is set for the night of Aug. 12-13.

Its peak also happens to coincide with a new moon, making for improved viewing conditions. Because there won't be any bright moonlight illuminating the sky, you'll be able to spot even the faintest meteors. 

And seeing them is easy. You don't need a telescope or binoculars, and it's best to look straight up, at the darkest part of the sky.

Meteor showers are named for the constellation from where the meteors seem to originate. The radiant of the Perseids are in the constellation Perseus, which will be well positioned in the northeastern sky around midnight local time.

The radiant for the Perseids, or area from where the meteors seem to originate, is in the constellation Perseus. (CBC News)

For the best viewing conditions, find somewhere dark, away from any streetlights. And be sure to put down that phone: white light will hamper your ability to see faint meteors. (It can also take a half-hour or more for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.) 

Lying down will make the show easier on your neck, so find a blanket and just look up. And that's key: Meteors are moving at nearly 60 kilometres per second. Turn to look at someone and you're likely to miss one.

While you're out looking for meteors, don't forget about the planets. Mars will be visible as a bright red "star" in the southeast sky and Saturn will appear just above the "teapot" in the constellation Sagittarius. If you go out early enough, you'll also catch Jupiter in the southwest.

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