Technology & Science

Look up! One of the best meteor showers of the year, the Perseids, peaks tonight

The Perseid meteor shower, which can produce upwards of 100 meteors per hour in a dark-sky location, is happening now. Here's what you need to know.

While the moon will put a damper on the peak night, you're almost sure to see a light show

In this composite image taken by astronomer Alan Dyer, several Perseid meteors are visible, along with the northern lights. This year's Perseid meteor shower will be hampered by an almost-full moon on the peak night. (Submitted by Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com)

You know summer is nearing its end when the best meteor shower of the year comes around. 

The annual Perseid meteor shower, which typically produces roughly 100 meteors an hour at its peak in dark sky locations, is underway.

However, there's a bit of bad news when it comes to this year's display, and it has to do with the moon.

The shower runs from July 17 to Aug. 26, but peaks on the night of Aug. 12–13. Unfortunately, the moon will be 94 per cent illuminated. This means that only the brightest meteors will be visible.

But it's not all bad news. The Perseids produce many meteors and many of those tend to be bright, moonlight or no.

The Perseids occur as a result of Earth passing through the path of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle as it orbits the sun.

Try out this interactive map showing how Earth passes through the meteor shower:

Swift-Tuttle is pretty massive, comparatively speaking. Its nucleus is roughly 26 kilometres across; most comets are usually only a few metres. As a result, Swift-Tuttle sheds a lot of debris compared to other comets. 

Most meteors you see in the sky are only about the size of a grain of sand. But sometimes they can be as large as a pebble. It's these pebble-sized objects that produce fireballs, or extremely bright meteors. And that's something that is associated with this particular meteor shower, which is very good news this year since the moon will be so bright.

You can watch during peak night Aug. 12-13 and also in the days following. The best thing to do is to get away from lights. That way, you'll have a better chance of catching faint meteors.

A Perseid meteor is seen in Kirkfield, Ont., in 2018. Perseids are known for producing bright meteors, or fireballs. (Submitted by Stuart McNair)

And the best part about meteor showers is you don't need binoculars or a telescope. Just lie on a lawn chair or blanket and look up. And be sure to put away that phone, as its light makes it harder for your eyes to adjust to the darkness, which can take 30 minutes or longer.

The best time to look is in the early hours of the morning, when Perseus is highest in the sky. On the night of Aug. 12–13, the moon sets around 3:30 a.m. wherever you are. So, if you're willing to either head to bed very late or wake up super early, your chances of seeing a few are greater.

The new moon occurred on the night of July 31 and has been steadily brightening as we head to the peak night of the Perseids. The good news is that, as it does brighten, it's setting in the west as Perseus rises in the east. But it sets later each night, eventually gracing the southern sky around 11 p.m. local times on Aug. 12.

You might notice that, if you trace the meteors you see back to their point of origin in a particular area in the sky. That's the constellation Perseus, from which the shower gets its name. But you don't need to necessarily look in that direction. And be sure not to look away: you might miss them, as they're fast. Perseids can travel at roughly 60 km/s.

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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