King of Meteor Showers

This year’s Perseid meteor display will happen on the evening of Sunday August12th into the morning of Monday August 12th. Normally, the shower is expected to produce as many as 100 “shooting stars” an hour at its peak as seen from a dark sky location—with only about half as many visible from urban locations. However, this year rates as high as 150 are being predicted. It all has to do with the location of the meteor or debris stream from the source of the shower which is Comet Swift-Tuttle that orbits the Sun every 130 years.


The number of meteors seen will increase steadily throughout the night for a number of reasons. One is that the radiant—that point from which the meteors appear to race towards us—continues to rise ever higher in the sky as the evening goes on. For this shower, it’s located in the constellation Perseus, positioned very low in the northeast after darkness falls on the 12th. Using your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to first identify it, see how it rises higher and higher by setting the star-disk to later and later hours being well up by the time dawn approaches. The presence of just a thin crescent Moon in the morning sky assures that the Perseids will put on a nice display this year, unlike last year when a nearly Full Moon compromised visibility.


There’s yet another and largely unsuspected factor at play in this and all meteor showers. During the evening hours we’re on the side of our spinning Spaceship Earth that’s essentially facing away from the direction the meteors are approaching, and so they have to “catch up” with us. But after midnight we’re turned completely toward the direction of the radiant, causing them to slam into the atmosphere at much higher speeds — resulting in many more being seen and those that are seen being brighter. So staying up late when meteor watching is always worth doing.


For optimum coverage in observing meteor showers, face toward the radiant while at the same time concentrating your attention on the sky overhead—preferably reclining comfortably on a lawn chair 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 Scientifics’ binoculars is also encouraged for following the trails or “trains” often left behind by many of the brighter meteors. For an added thrill, point them in the direction of the radiant itself—you may be lucky enough to see a few meteors coming directly at you, suddenly appearing from out of nowhere as a brightening star!


— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of 10 books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from