If you have the opportunity to get far enough away from city lights to get a good view of the night sky, you couldn’t pick a much better time to do it than tonight or early tomorrow morning. You won’t even need a telescope.
The Perseid meteor shower — one of the best-known and most spectacular of its kind — is at its peak, as the Earth passes through the densest part of the tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The best time to see the meteors will be early tomorrow morning, between midnight and dawn, because they’re predicted to be falling at a rate of between 60 and 100 per hour — though keep in mind that that’s an average, so you’ll likely see four or five in quick succession, then a minute or two with none at all, followed by a few more, etc. Unfortunately, the moon is gibbous and up all night long, which will reduce the spectacle a bit, but if the sky is clear it should still be well worth a trip outside, and maybe even waking up the kids to join you.
The meteors will appear to come out of the constellation Perseus, which is how the shower got its name. The easiest way to find them is to simply get to as dark a location as you can find with as few obstructions as possible, lean back as far as you can (lying down is optimal), and watch the darkest part of the sky. You will eventually see a meteor streak by. If you follow its tail backwards, it will lead to Perseus. Try to avoid looking towards the moon if at all possible. The Perseids are viewable primarily from the Northern Hemisphere. For those of our readers in the Southern Hemisphere: You may see a few meteors here and there, but not nearly as many as those of us in the Northern.
A few more pieces of pertinent information, which you may wish to dazzle your friends or kids with: A small object passing through space is a meteoroid; if it hits the Earth’s atmosphere and becomes luminescent, it becomes a meteor; if some part of it survives its passage through the atmosphere and hits the ground, that part is a meteorite. Should anyone ask, the Perseids are burning up at a temperature of over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit (1650 Celsius), and become visible to the naked eye at about 60 miles up.
Just to whet your appetite even further, here’s a video a man named John Chumack shot in Dayton, Ohio last year, compressed down to a few seconds. And that was before the peak!
[A version of this post originally ran last year during the Perseid meteor shower.]