The Perseids have arrived. They're widely recognized as the largest and most dependable meteor display of the year, and NASA has already spied several early fireballs – but activity is expected to really ramp up in the days ahead. Here's our handy guide to meteor-watching.
The Perseid visibility is expected to peak in the (very) early morning hours of Monday, August 12 and Tuesday, August 13th. This year's display will share the sky with a waxing crescent Moon, so visibility, while not perfect, should still be pretty great. Here's everything you need to know to spot as many meteors as possible.
Avoid light like the plague
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 waxing 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 make a world of difference when it comes to visibility. 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 7) you'll see plenty of meteors. If you can't spot all 7 it's not a big deal, that's just under optimal conditions.
Know when and where to look
The best hours for catching the Perseids will fall between midnight and dawn on the mornings of August 12th and 13th, but there's a good chance you'll be able to spot fireballs the nights of August 9–10th and 10th–11th, as well.
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 always join NASA's live, online chat about the shower.
Bring the right stuff
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.
Image credits: Top image shows a Perseid meteor from 2010's shower tearing across the night sky over the VLT// via ESO; Image of radiant via NASA
A version of this post originally appeared in August 2012