Look for the annual Perseid meteor shower to be at its best this weekend! Best times to watch: after midnight and before dawn on August 11, 12 or 13. We give the nod to Sunday, August 12 – in the hours between midnight and dawn – as the possible best day. But any of these mornings should be fine for watching this year’s Perseid shower.
The Perseids are a summertime classic. They’re a favorite for Northern Hemisphere viewers, though this shower can also be watched from tropical and subtropical latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere as well. Plus the moon is sweeping past the brightest planets – Jupiter and Venus – in the predawn sky this weekend. What more can you ask? Find a dark, open sky far away from the harsh glare of city lights, lie down comfortably on a reclining lawn chair and enjoy the show. You don’t need to know the constellations. You don’t need special equipment. Simply look up to watch Perseid meteors streaking the nighttime sky. As seen from around the world, the most meteors usually fall in the dark hours just before dawn.
From the Northern Hemisphere, you can see a smattering of Perseid meteors in the evening hours. The meteors tend to be few and far between at mid-evening, though this presents the best time of night to try to catch anearthgrazer – an elongated, long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky. Earthgrazers are rare but most memorable if you’re lucky enough to spot one. From the Southern Hemisphere, the first meteors – and possible earthgrazers – won’t be flying until midnight or the wee hours of the morning. In either the Northern or the Southern Hemisphere, the greatest number of meteors peppers the sky in the dark hours before dawn.
The paths of the Perseid meteors, when traced backward, appear to originate from the constellation Perseus. Hence, this meteor shower’s name. However, you don’t have to know the constellation Perseus to watch the Perseid meteor shower, for the Perseids fly every which way across the starry heavens. The radiant sits low in the northeast sky at evening and climbs upward throughout the night. The higher that the radiant is in your sky, the more Perseid meteors that you’re likely to see.
At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the radiant of the Perseid meteor shower never gets very high in the sky. Therefore, the number of Perseid meteors seen from this part of the world isn’t as great as at more northerly latitudes. But if you’re game, look northward in the wee hours before dawn and you may still see a sprinkling of Perseids.
The earliest historical account of Perseid activity comes from a Chinese record in 36AD, where it was said that “more than 100 meteors flew in the morning.” Numerous references to the August Perseids appear in Chinese, Japanese and Korean records throughout the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th centuries. Meanwhile, according to ancient western skylore, the Perseid shower commemorates the time when the god Zeus visited the mortal maiden Danae in the form of a shower of gold. Zeus and Danae became the parents of Perseus the Hero – from whose constellation the Perseid meteors radiate.
About an hour before sunrise, use the bright planets Jupiter and Venus to locate the planet Mercury near the sunrise point on the horizon. Binoculars may be helpful.
On a moonless night, the Perseids commonly produce 50 or more meteors per hour in our Northern Hemisphere sky. Totally moonless nights won’t greet the 2012 Perseid shower, but even so, thewaning crescent moon’s presence in the early morning sky shouldn’t really dampen the show too much. In fact, it’ll be a glorious spectacle, seeing the lunar crescent near the planet Jupiter, and above the planet Venus in the predawn and dawn hours on Saturday, August 11, Sunday, August 12 and Monday, August 13. For most of Indonesia, the moon will actually occult – cover over Jupiter – before sunrise on August 12.
The Perseid meteors happen around this time every year, as Earth in its orbit crosses the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Dusty debris left behind by this comet smashes into Earth’s upper atmosphere, lighting up the nighttime as fiery Perseid meteors. The meteors start out slowly in the evening hours, begin to pick up steam after midnight and put out the greatest numbers in the dark hours before dawn. The best viewing hours for this year’s Perseid meteors will probably be from about 2 a.m. until dawn on August 11, 12 and 13.