Keep your eyes trained on the night sky in the coming week. One of the highlights of summer stargazing, the Perseid meteor shower, peaks on Sunday and Monday nights. This is a productive, weeks-long shower that could yield around 50 meteors an hour, according to the Peterson Field Guide’s Stars and Planets.
Stargazers, however, should expect to see far fewer meteors.
The shower will be especially easy to see this year, as it will peak when there is almost no moon, meaning the moon’s brilliance will not interfere with viewing as it has in years past.
The best time for observing the Perseid shower will be late at night, around 11 p.m. to midnight, when the Earth is facing into the shower. However, meteors can be seen at any hour of the evening, and in fact will be visible in lesser numbers in the days surrounding its peak.
Meteors, fast-moving pieces of space debris, are no bigger than a dime and burn up before they hit the ground, appearing to us as shooting stars.
The Perseid meteor shower is perhaps the most popular of about a dozen showers each year, as stargazers can sit outside and enjoy it. Only the Geminid meteor shower producers more meteors — an estimated 70 per hour, according to the Peterson Field Guide. That shower occurs in December.
Most of the meteors will seem to come from the constellation Perseus in the northeast sky. For centuries, astronomers thought that the meteors actually did come from that constellation, hence the name. But modern-day astronomers now know the meteors are the remnants of a comet that orbits the sun.
Each year around August 12, the earth passes through the orbit of this comet, Comet 109P/Swift Tuttle, and encounters the meteors.
The comet was last observed by amateur astronomers in 1992. Prior to that it was observed and named in 1862. Astronomers have taken particular note of the comet because it makes repeated passes around the sun every 133 years and could come too close to the earth in 2,000 years.