A Perseid meteor over the VLT in Chile
Photo: ESO/S. Guisard

One of the year’s best meteor showers peaks tonight into tomorrow and Wednesday, which means it’s a great opportunity to wake up early, find a dark place outdoors, and enjoy the spectacle.

Space isn’t completely empty—clouds of dust left behind by comets dot Earth’s path around the Sun. When we pass through these clouds, specks of dust ignite in the atmosphere and produce bright streaks. The Perseids are one of the most famous of these meteor showers, because they can produce more than one flash per minute at their peak and because they happen during the summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

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This year, the shower peaks just a few days away from the full moon, whose brightness will make it harder to see some of the meteor flashes. But any reason is good enough to go outside and appreciate the night sky.

The Perseids come from dust left by the comet Swift-Tuttle and are named because they appear to originate from the constellation Perseus in the sky.

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Like any astronomical event, the Perseids are best enjoyed under clear skies, far from city lights. Here’s one map you can use to help find darker skies in your area; a chart factoring in things like cloud cover (no meteors will be seen on a cloudy night!); and an explanation of the light pollution-measuring Bortle scale, which helps explain what you might see in a dark-enough sky—the lower the number, the more you can see. I recently went stargazing in a Bortle 4 site about an hour and a half from New York City, and it was dark enough to see meteors, the band of the Milky Way, and the faint smudge of Andromeda without a telescope. Many of the Perseid meteors will still be plenty bright enough to see from city parks, if you don’t have a means to travel.

If you do find a dark-enough spot, remember that it can take a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Even then, the meteors can be unpredictable, so it’s worth watching for a while.

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Meteor showers generally look best in dark skies before sunrise. Tomorrow in New York, for example, the nearly full moon sets around 4 a.m., and light from the Sun will begin peaking through shortly after. In Los Angeles, the moon sets even later, so it will outshine some of the meteors. Either way, you can always just look at the moon.

The Perseids have been streaking the sky for a few weeks already, as EarthSky reports, and will continue on for another week or so. If you miss it, the Perseids are just one of many meteor showers you can enjoy each year.

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