Your Ticket to Summer's Best Light Show: The Perseid Meteor Shower

Perseid Meteor Shower, Hawaii
••• Pu`ukohola Heiau during the Perseid Meteor Shower, August 2012. Ethan Tweedie/National Park Service

Are your kids fascinated by the stars and planets? Catching a summer meteor shower is a perfect introduction to stargazing. Unlike many astronomical events, a meteor shower can be viewed with the naked eye, so you don't need a telescope. All you need is a few lawn chairs or a blanket and a dark sky. It's the perfect excuse for a summer camping trip.

In a typical year, the Perseids could peak at 50 to 100 shooting stars an hour.

 

Perseid Meteor Shower

Summer's greatest light show is the Perseid Meteor Shower, which is best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere and down to the mid-southern latitudes. That means it's viewable from sea to shining sea in the United States as well as Alaska and Hawaii. You can also view it in Canada, Mexico, Asia and Europe. 

According to Greek legend, the annual event commemorates a time when the god Zeus visited the mortal Danae in a shower of gold.

Their son, Perseus, was a hero in Greek mythology who beheaded the Medusa and saved Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. While the meteors can be seen anywhere in the night sky, they appear to originate from the region located in the Perseus constellation.

Astronomists tell a different tale. The Comet Swift-Tuttle passes through our solar system every 133 years, leaving a messy trail of debris behind. Each summer between mid-July and late August, the Earth crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

The comet's orbit is littered with rubble that slams into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at over 100,000 miles per hour, lighting up the night sky with meteors. On a dark, moonless night, the Perseids can deliver 100 meteors an hour at their peak.

When and Where to View the Perseids

When: The shower runs annually from July 17 to August 24 but the peak is expected to occur in the early morning of August 12-13, 2017.

 

Where: For the best viewing, you'll need to get out of the cities and suburbs and into the wide open countryside. Due to our modern day expansion of urban and suburban artificial lights, fewer and fewer people are able to enjoy a truly inky black night sky.

The ultimate stargazing destinations are the Dark-Sky Parks designated by the International Dark-Sky Association, including those in the United States. These are parks and public lands that possess exceptional starry skies because light pollution is virtually non-existent and darkness is protected as an important natural resource.

Dark-Sky Parks in the U.S.

Can't make it to an official dark-sky park? You can certainly make due by heading to another dark-sky site with little light pollution that's within driving distance of where you live. Here's where to look:

Dark Sky Sites in the U.S.


​How: If you're not pulling an all-nighter, set your alarm to wake around midnight. Allow about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark night sky, and give yourself at least an hour of viewing time. Meteor showers tend to produce shooting stars in spurts and lulls, rather than a steady stream. Allowing a significant stretch of time should insure that you'll see dozens of meteors.