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Tips for catching the Perseid meteor shower at its peak

A photo of a purple sky with stars and one streak of light over the spine of a hill.
Kevin Clifford
Associated Press File
A Perseid meteor streaks across the sky on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 in Vinton, California.

The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year from late July to mid-to-late August, with its peak coming this weekend. These sudden streaks of light — also known as meteors, shooting stars or falling stars — fill the sky, sometimes once every minute.

According to Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium senior meteorologist Mark Breen, you can see a meteor in the sky almost any clear night, but there are parts of the year when they become more numerous.

"[T]hese meteor showers occur when the Earth along its orbital path basically runs into the debris from comets," Breen told Vermont Edition. "Comets, although they're primarily made of ice, they're embedded with these tiny little fragments of rock, and so it basically gets left behind as the comet runs its course around the sun. And the earth runs into those same particles, that same debris every year, and that same point in our orbit, and therefore, there are several meteor showers that we can identify through the year and we can even identify the comets they're associated with."

The Perseids are one of the better meteor showers in terms of numbers, Breen said, with anywhere from 60 to 100 meteors per hour.

Another fun fact: these meteors are actually quite small — smaller than a garden pea, according to Breen.

"Now you have to realize that you're seeing this maybe 60 miles away. So if you think about it, you're probably not gonna — I mean, my vision isn't good enough to see a garden pea from 60 miles," he said. "Why can we see them? One of the things that's happening, the Perseid meteors are actually traveling at 130,000 miles an hour, an incredible rate of speed, so fast that not only do they burn up, but they pack the little bit of air that's in front of them a packet so tightly that the air starts to incandesce, it glows. And that's actually the light that we see."

Here are Breen's tips for seeing the Perseids in all their (pea-sized!) glory.

Go out in the early morning hours

Breen said you'll see more meteors around 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning.

"The way that the Earth is spinning, and the way we are orbiting the sun, it's after midnight, that the Earth is spinning into the direction that we're orbiting. And that actually sweeps us into a richer supply of those particles, and therefore, the numbers of meteors much greater in the hours after midnight," he said.

Look straight up

While it might be tempting to look where the meteors are coming from — from the constellation Perseus — Breen said that's not the best direction.

"That's what we call the radiant point — they may not actually make their appearance until they are many degrees away from that location in the sky," he said. "So it's always considered the sort of the best advice is to simply look straight up."

Grab your recliner or blankets for cushion, Breen said.

More from Vermont Public: The 2024 total solar eclipse is coming to Vermont. How to figure out the best viewing spot now

This weekend will be the peak

While the Perseids last from July through August, Breen said Aug. 11-14 is a "fairly sharp peak."

"And in particular, they peak actually this year very close to midnight, on the night of the 12 into the 13," he said. "So Saturday night into Sunday morning. The weather looks like it may be more favorable to see them on Friday night into Saturday, just based on the latest information that I've been looking at — that it looks like it'll be more clear Friday night into Saturday, as opposed to Saturday night into Sunday, but maybe that'll change."

Get away from lights

Breen said the Perseids, while numerous, can also be faint.

"And so one of the things that you'll want as much as possible is a dark location," he said. "You don't want a lot of extraneous lights around, lights on even in your house."

Keep an eye out for Jupiter

In addition to meteors, Breen said people can also look for Jupiter in the sky, which is rising right around midnight now.

"It'll be noticeably bright, by far the brightest object other than the moon in the sky heading on into the weekend," he said. "So that's definitely something to look for. That'll be climbing up into the east and northeastern skies."

If you miss it, there will be more

Breen said the next meteor-heavy period coming up is this fall.

"There are two or three of them, they're kind of blended together from the late October into early November," he said. "They're centered around what we call the Taurid meteor showers. Recent information, so forth, actually separating them into the northern Taurid and the southern Taurid meteor showers, but like I said, they all kind of blend together."

Breen says the Taurids are exciting because they tend to come with larger particles that burn more dramatically.

"You see this bright ball of light in the streak or tail behind it — they're sometimes called bowlines, or more popularly, fireballs," he said. "You can see some of them during the Perseids. But there is a tendency for fireballs during the Taurid meteor showers in late October and November, so much so that they're sometimes referred to as the 'Halloween fireballs.'"

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Elodie is a reporter and producer for Vermont Public. She previously worked as a multimedia journalist at the Concord Monitor, the St. Albans Messenger and the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, and she's freelanced for The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, the Berkshire Eagle and the Bennington Banner. In 2019, she earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Southern New Hampshire University.
Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.