Sky Talk August 2010: A Near-Perfect Perseid Shower!

On a number of occasions over the past several years we’ve featured the annual Perseid Meteor Shower in our August column. But often conditions haven’t been favorable due to bright Moonlight spoiling the view — or its maximum occuring during the middle of the day instead of at night, or in the wee hours of the morning when most of us are sleeping. But this month, we have an opportunity to see a nearly ideal display.

The famed Perseid Meteor Shower will reach peak activity this year on the early evening of (or perhaps slightly before) August 12th just as the sky is getting dark for observers along the East coast. This display is expected to produce at least 60 “shooting stars” an hour at its maximum (that’s one-per-minute on average) and possibly as many as 100 an hour as seen from a dark-sky location. And not only is the timing good, but the Moon will offer no interference at all this year. It will be a three-day-old thin crescent visible in the west at dusk, and set not long after the Sun itself.

The radiant — that point from which the meteors appear to shoot toward us — is located in the constellation Perseus (after which the shower is named). It will just be clearing the northeastern horizon around 9:00 p.m. local time, and continue to climb ever-higher in the sky as our spinning Spaceship Earth turns in its direction. Use your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to first identify it, and then see its altitude increase by setting the star-dusk to later and later hours. You’ll find it lying nearly overhead by the time dawn approaches on the following morning.

Note that the number of meteors should noticeably decrease as the peak passes and the evening progresses. But there’s always some uncertainty as to the actual time of maximum, so it’s best to begin watching as soon as darkness falls. Many avid meteor watchers like to do counts of the number seen in precise hourly intervals (technically known as determining “hourly rates”). This allows you to see if shower activity is increasing or decreasing. It can also provide valuable data if properly recorded for the various professional meteor societies around the world. In this country, you can contact the American Meteor Society at for much useful information about observing meteors in general and also submitting observations.

For optimum coverage of the Perseid shower, face East toward the radiant while at the same time concentrating your attention on the sky overhead — preferably reclining comfortably on a lawnchair or heavy blanket and pillow. And while this is basically a naked-eye activity since it’s important to canvass as large an area of sky as possible, using your Celestron SkyMaster binoculars from Edmund is also encouraged for following the trails or “trains” often left behind by many of the brighter meteors. For an added thrill, point them from time to time at the radiant itself — you may be lucky enough to see a few meteors coming directly at you, suddenly appearing from out of nowhere as brightening stars!

–James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine and author of seven books on stargazing.