Catching a summer meteor shower is a perfect introduction to stargazing because unlike many astronomical events, a meteor shower can be viewed with the naked eye, so you don't need a telescope. All you need are a few lawn chairs or a blanket and a dark sky. It's the perfect excuse for a summer camping trip or at least a ride outside the reach of the city's lights to get the most spectacular view.
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 in mid-August each year. The Perseid meteor shower is viewable from sea to shining sea in the United States as well as in Alaska and Hawaii; you can also view it in Canada, Mexico, Asia, and Europe.
Summer's Best Light Show
According to Greek legend, the annual Perseid meteor shower 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.
Astronomers tell a different tale. The comet Swift-Tuttle passes through the Earth's 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 Swift-Tuttle. The comet's orbit is littered with rubble that slams into the Earth’s upper atmosphere at more than 100,000 miles per hour, lighting up the night sky with meteors.
In a typical year, the Perseids could peak at 50 to 100 shooting stars an hour. However, in 2019, the meteor show will be eclipsed by a partially-full moon that will make the sky too bright to see the meteors burning up as they enter Earth's atmosphere. As a result, you will likely only see 10 to 15 meteors per hour this year.
When and Where to View the Perseids
When: The shower runs annually from July 17 to August 24, but the best view in 2019 is expected to be on the nights of August 12 and 13, each continuing through the early morning hours of the following day.
Where: For the best viewing, you'll need to get out of the cities and suburbs and into the wide-open countryside. Because of the modern-day spread of urban and suburban artificial lights, fewer people are able to enjoy a truly inky black night sky, which is the best possible way to see the meteors.
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 exceptionally 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.
- Cherry Springs State Park (Pennsylvania)
- Staunton River State Park (Virginia)
- Picket CCC Memorial State Park, Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area (Tennessee)
- Mayland Community College Blue Ridge Observatory and Star Park (North Carolina)
- Observatory Park (Ohio)
- The Headlands (Michigan)
- Big Bend National Park (Texas)
- Copper Breaks State Park (Texas)
- Enchanted Rock State Natural Area (Texas)
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico)
- Clayton Lake State Park (New Mexico)
- Parashant International Night Sky Province, Grand Canyon (Arizona)
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 ensure that you'll see dozens of meteors.