The Perseids have arrived. Widely recognized as the largest and most dependable meteor display of the year for the Northern hemisphere, the first reports of Perseid meteors starting popping up early this morning, but activity is expected to increase in the days ahead, peaking in the (very) early morning hours of August 12.
Unlike last year's Perseids, which had to compete with the glare of a full Moon, this year's display arrives while the Moon is a waning crescent, which should make for much better sky-gazing. Here's everything you need to know to witness as many meteors as possible.
Mike Brown, the man who killed Pluto, likes to say that the Moon is his nemesis, because it washes out his view of the celestial bodies in the night sky. And while you may not agree with Pluto's demotion, you'd be wise to take Brown's experience to heart; when you're looking for meteors, the Moon is your enemy — even when that Moon is a waning crescent.
But city lights, street lights, house lights, flashlights, any lights can be just as bad. You've already got the moon and your surroundings giving off tons of it, so don't blow it by checking your indiglo watch out of habit and for god's sake don't look at your phone.
If you're in the country, go find a big open field. If you're in the city, get out if you can. If you can't get out, try to find a high point.
Taking all these things into account can amount to a huge difference. The images featured here help illustrate the effect that light pollution can have on your stargazing experience. The bottom photo was taken in Orem, Utah, a major metropolitan area with around 400,000 people. The top photo was taken in Leamington, a rural Utah town, about 75 miles southwest of Orem, with a population of just 217 people. The difference is staggering. Give it a little forethought, and you can vastly improve your experience; the Clear Sky Chart website has a great list of optimal viewing locations organized by state, so go check it out.
Once you're all settled in, give yourself at least 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adapt to the dark. How do you know if your eyes have adapted? A good rule of thumb says if you can see all the stars in the little dipper (you should count 10) you'll see plenty of meteors. If you can't spot all 10 it's not a big deal, that's just under optimal conditions.
The best hours for catching the Perseids are typically between midnight and dawn on the mornings of August 11th, 12th and 13th, with activity peaking on the morning of the 12. That being said, the Moon will be rising during predawn hours this year, so you might want to keep your eyes peeled for meteors starting in the late evening.
You can also use NASA's Fluxtimator to help you calculate the best time to be looking skyward. The Fluxtimator even takes your viewing location (i.e. whether you're observing from the city or the countryside) and the brightness of the Moon into account, just be sure to adjust date and location information accordingly.
As for where to look, that depends on who you ask. Some people will tell you to look towards the radiant, where the shooting stars will appear to emanate from (for the perseids this is near the constellation Perseus), but bear in mind that meteors' trails tend to be shorter the closer they are to the radiant. Your best bet is to probably just look straight up, or to face away from the moon, keeping in mind that meteors can appear anywhere in the sky.
If you'd like to join local experts, try looking for your neighborhood astronomy club, and find out whether they'll be setting up a telescope you can peek through with friends. And if there's no local club, you can alwaysjoin NASA's live, online chat about the shower.
Bring a reclining lawn chair, a blanket, some pillows, a coat in case it gets chilly — whatever you need to get comfortable and still keep your eyes on the sky. Don't try to stand. Standing and looking up may seem like a decent enough idea, but eventually your neck will get tired, and the second you take your eyes off the sky is invariably when the brightest meteors of the night will go blazing by — it's like a code that all meteors live by.
You shouldn't really need a telescope or binoculars, because you'll want to keep your eyes on as much of the night sky as possible. Bring something to snack on, but nothing you have to look at to eat. And finally, bring some good company, so you have somebody to "ooh" and "ahh" with while stargazing on this beautiful summer night.