The Best Way to Watch Tonight's Rare Perseid Meteor Shower Outburst
The annual Perseid meteor shower will be an event you cannot miss this year. It is going to apex on the night of August 11 and will still provide good viewing on August 12. But this year is special. It will be what astronomers call an "outburst," meaning that it's going to provide some great viewing.
In a normal year, the meteor shower rains down around 100 meteors per hour at its peak. In an outburst, there can be from 160-200 meteors an hour. As talked about previously, the show occurs when the Earth's orbit intersects with the tail of the ancient Swift-Tuttle comet. In an outburst, gravitational forces from Jupiter bring the Earth's orbit closer to the actual comet, meaning that more debris from the tail hails down on Earth.
The outburst isn't just bringing more meteors than usual; it's bringing the year's best viewing of fireballs. "The last Perseid outburst, which happened in 2009, was pretty spectacular, with a fair number of fireballs mixed in with the regular meteors," said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office. "I would think that this year's display, on the night of the 11th/morning of the 12th, would be similar."
The Best Way to Watch
The Perseids will be best viewed on the night of the 11th into the 12th, though there should still be a good show on the 12th, with more meteor coming in over the weekend, though they will come at a slower rate. The peak hours on the first night should be between midnight and dawn.
To best view the shower, get as far away from city lights as possible. A dark field is optimal. However, with such a spectacular display this year, stargazers may even be able to see some meteors inside cities. But the best viewings will be far from light pollution.
Pack up a blanket and some wine and head away from the city. Then look up to the sky and find the constellation Perseus (maybe bring a star map as well). The Perseid meteor shower gets its name because the meteors appear to be falling from that constellation. That's where you'll get a good concentration of the meteors.
Additionally, NASA and the American Meteor Society recommend that you do not lie down on your back. While that's comfortable and how stargazers are generally portrayed in movies, it's not the way that you'll have the best viewing experience.
"Unfortunately the column of air directly above you is the thinnest slice of atmosphere," Robert Lunsford wrote at the American Meteor Society blog, "therefore producing the least number of meteors. You are better off centering your field of view at approximately one-half the way up in the sky, high enough to avoid anything that may block your view."
So, a lawn chair might be worth packing up as well.
If you're really lazy (and we know that might actually mean you're super intelligent) you can tune in online through the Slooh live stream, which is generally a reliable and engaging stream for astronomical events. But you should seriously get out of the house, even if it's the middle of the night. A meteor shower like this doesn't come around all that often.
Additionally, the other great meteor shower of the year, the Geminids, won't be great viewing this year. "With December's Geminids spoiled by a full moon, these Perseids will be the best shower of 2016," said Bob Berman, host of the Slooh broadcast. "Add to that the juicy peril of its parent comet, Swift-Tuttle, the most hazardous object in the known universe, and you have all the ingredients for a 4-star spectacle."
Don't miss out on this.
Dustin Nelson is a News Writer with Thrillist. He holds a Guinness World Record, but has never met the fingernail lady. He’s written for Sports Illustrated, Men’s Journal, The Rumpus, and other digital wonderlands. Follow him @dlukenelson.