This week brings us the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, the sixth meteor shower of 2023. While the shower has been active since the 17th of July, and will be until the 24th of August, the shower peaks between the 12th-13th of August and so will be at its most visible this weekend.
The Perseid meteor shower happens around this time every year, and is one of the year's most active showers. But what actually is a meteor shower — and how can you see one?
In this article, we will discuss what a meteor shower is, how they form, and how you can see the Perseids this August.
What are meteor showers?
A meteor shower is a number of meteors that originate from a single point in the sky. They are breathtaking celestial events, visible to the human eye from the Earth's surface. Around 30 meteor showers every year are visible to us on Earth according to NASA.
Each meteor shower gets its name from the constellation closest to its perceived point of origin; the Perseid meteor shower is named after the constellation Perseus.
Meteoroids, meteorites, and the formation of meteor showers
A meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through the debris left by a comet. This debris is known as a meteoroid, which, when entering the Earth's atmosphere, heats up due to friction, causing gases around the meteoroid to glow. This creates the meteors we can see from Earth.
Some matter in a meteor shower doesn't fully burn up and actually reaches Earth's surface — this is known as a meteorite. You might expect meteorites to be everywhere following a meteor shower, but NASA has stated that less than 5% of a meteoroid will make it to the Earth's surface. If you were hoping to go hunting for meteorites this month, you may not have much luck.
How do meteor showers repeat annually?
What is perhaps the most confusing thing about meteor showers is their annual repetition. If a meteor shower is caused by debris from a comet, how can the same meteor showers occur within the same dates year-on-year?
The key to this is actually very simple, as the Earth and comets have one thing in common: orbiting the Sun. The Earth orbits the Sun once a year, which means that on an annual basis, the Earth's orbit will inevitably intersect with the orbit of a specific comet. When this happens, cometary debris will enter the Earth's atmosphere, resulting in a meteor shower.
In the most simple terms, meteor showers repeat because the Earth orbits the Sun once every year, so the Earth's orbit intersects annually with a given comet's orbit.
How to watch the Perseid meteor shower
If you want to see the Perseid meteor shower this weekend, you may get lucky by just looking up — wherever you happen to be. However, there are environmental conditions that help your chances, and a few other factors it might be helpful to keep in mind.
When is the best time to see the Perseids?
The peak of a meteor shower is always the best time to see it — in the case of the Perseids, this will be this weekend, the 12–13th of August. You're more likely to see meteors in the lead up to the peak than in the days following it, so make sure you get a look in before the peak ends on Sunday.
While it may be out of our control, the moon phase at the time of a meteor shower can impact its visibility. This is essentially down to light pollution — when the moon is in its crescent phase, it's smaller and so it's easier to see meteors. During the peak of the Perseids this weekend, the moon will be a waning crescent, which will hopefully make the meteor shower easier to see.
Where is the best place to see the Perseids?
Light pollution has a huge impact on the visibility of a meteor shower. Generally speaking, the less light pollution, the better. This means that it may be more difficult to see a meteor shower from a city than from a more rural area. Similarly, clearer weather is better, and so if you're a committed meteor-gazer, you may need to travel to find a location with the optimum conditions.
Another factor to keep in mind is that giving yourself time to adjust to the dark can help you to see some of the dimmer meteors — so if you are standing in the dark outside, looking at your phone is perhaps not the best idea.
At Sent Into Space, we're excited to see one of the year's best meteor showers — and we hope you can get a look at the shower as it peaks this weekend!