It’s fast approaching: one of the best nights of the year to see meteors, shooting stars, or whatever you call those stunning objects that streak across the night sky burning up as they enter earth’s atmosphere. That’s right: it’s almost time for the peak of the 2020 Perseids meteor shower!
The Perseids meteor shower is one of the most active meteor showers of the year, and occurs in the warm weather months when many people are willing to spend several hours outside trying to see them. (The other great meteor shower is the Geminids in December, but fewer people are willing to bundle up for those!)
If you have your heart set on seeing this year’s Perseids meteor shower, read on for everything you need to know to see Perseids meteors in 2020.
Featured image credit: Rocky Raybell via Flickr
When to See the Perseids
Like most meteor showers, there are two important sets of dates to keep in mind when you try to see the Perseids:
- The Perseids meteor shower occurs from July 17 to August 24 each year; during this time, there is a varying amount of meteoric activity that you can see on any given night from the radiant point near the constellation Perseus.
- The Perseids meteor shower will peak in the pre-dawn hours on August 11-13 in 2020. On these three nights (or, more accurately, mornings) you’ll see the most meteoric activity.
When most people ask “when can you see the Perseids,” they’re inquiring about those peak days – August 11, 12, and 13 this year.
The Peak of the Perseids in 2020
Let’s break down the idea of a “peak” during a meteor shower a little bit more. Basically, when a meteor shower occurs, the earth passes through a stream of debris left by a comet or asteroid. In the case of the Perseids, the debris which form the Perseids meteor shower are left by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which makes a 133-year orbit through the Solar System and was last seen in 1992.
This trail of debris is more dispersed on the outer limits, and more densely populated with meteoroids near the middle. So when a meteor shower like the Perseids begins (and ends), the meteor activity is less – we’re passing through a less dense part of the comet’s trail; as we approach (and leave) the peak days, the meteor activity gets more frequent. On those peak nights, when we experience the greatest meteor activity since we’re passing through the densest part of the debris trail.
Astronomers describe the “greatest meteor activity” using a metric called Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR). This is the maximum (zenith) rate of meteors you’ll see in an hour.
All that is to say: the peak of the Perseids will occur on August 11-13. On this night, the ZHR will be up to 150 meteors per hour! This is why people get excited about the Perseids: it’s a warm season meteor shower where you can see 2-3 meteors per minute!
Where to See the Perseids
When you ask “where can I see the Perseids?,” again – there are two answers:
- The first answer is about where you can see the Perseids in the night sky
- The second is about where you should go on earth to see the Perseids
Let’s break each one down.
The Perseids take their name from the constellation Perseus, which appears in the northern hemisphere between the constellations Auriga and Cassiopeia. The reason the Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus is that they appear to radiate from a point near the constellation; this is called the “radiant point.”
So regarding the first answer to where to see the Perseids, the answer is: near the constellation Perseus. As long as you’re in the northern hemisphere and can see Perseus above the horizon (use a star-finder app, like Night Sky), you should be able to see Perseid meteors.
In terms of where on earth to see the Perseids, there’s a lot of flexibility. Obviously, as mentioned, you need to be in the northern hemisphere, since Perseus is a northern constellation. Also, it helps to be in a dark sky location, rather than near a city or town with bright lights. The darker the sky you can drive to, the better experience you’ll have! Here are more tips on seeing how to see the Perseids this year.
Tips on Seeing the Perseids Meteor Shower
Here’s a quick list of tips to help make your Perseids viewing a success:
- Find a dark sky location. Use our city stargazing guides to find a place 1-2 hours from where you live, or peruse our World Space Tourism Guide to find dark sky places around the globe.
- Plan for a night during peak activity. As mentioned, the peak of the Perseids will be around August 12th, so be sure to pick a night that weekend if you want to see the most activity.
- Look throughout the whole sky, rather than focusing on the radiant point. While the radiant point is helpful in trying to spot meteors, it’s actually better to scan the whole sky around the radiant point so you’ll see Perseids as they streak away from that area.
- Bring layers. It gets chilly at night, no matter where in the world you live! Bring extra clothing so your night of spotting meteors isn’t affected by being cold!
Special Equipment for Viewing the Perseids
You don’t need any special equipment to view the Perseids meteor shower, which is great. A telescope and binoculars won’t really work because meteors move so fast as they enter the atmosphere – your eyes alone are good enough!
If you want to try and photograph meteors, here are some resources to help:
- Here is our list of the best cameras for astrophotography, based on any budget.
- We have a list of astrophotography tips that will help you get acquainted with all the mechanics of shooting photos at night.
- Lastly, while it’s a similar topic, our post with aurora photography tips is helpful because some of the principles are similar for shooting meteor showers.
In general, the best thing to do is find a shutter speed, aperture, and ISO setting that allow you to capture the stars and any meteors in the frame you’re shooting. You may or may not see meteors with your eyes, but if you have your camera settings right, they’ll show up in the photos! (Many astrophotographers discover meteors in their photos even on non-meteor shower nights!)
Do you have any other questions about trying to see the 2020 Perseids meteor shower? let us know in the comments!