Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight: Interesting facts, tips to spot the year's best meteor shower display

Following the faint Delta Aquariids meteor shower in July come the Perseids, which is arguably the best and brightest meteor shower throughout the year.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on 28 July 2020, and has been republished on 12 August in light of the meteor shower's peak on the night between 12-13 August.

Each year, as the Earth makes its way around the sun, the planet's movement along its orbit ensures that it crosses paths with the orbit of a stream of asteroid rubble, or comets. When the orbits intersect, people all over the world are treated to a brilliant, natural firework display in the sky in the form of meteor showers.

One of the most prominent meteor showers is the Perseid meteor shower that takes place annually in between 17 July and 24 August. It usually peaks between 9-13 August, and is expected to peak between 12-13 August this year.

How meteor showers occur

NASA states that as a comet's path brings it closer to the Sun, some of its icy surface "boils off", releasing a lot of debris, water and gas out into space. Earth comes in contact with this debris every year as it makes its revolution around the Sun.

These meteoroids or space rocks, which are a lot smaller than asteroids, strike the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrate in a fiery phenomenon that is commonly called a shooting star.

When numerous meteoroids fall toward Earth at the same time, it is termed as a meteor shower.

Perseid Meteors over Mount Shasta Image Credit: NASA/Brad Goldpaint

Perseid Meteors over Mount Shasta in 2016. Image Credit: NASA/Brad Goldpaint

The Perseid meteor shower

Following the faint meteor shower of July in the form of Delta Aquariids, come the Perseids – arguably the best and brightest meteor shower throughout the year.

The "pieces of space debris" that come in close contact with Earth's atmosphere and create the Perseids were actually part of the Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. This large comet takes about 133 years to revolve around the Sun and it visited the inner solar system last in 1992.

A comet from the Perseid Meteor Shower in 2015. Image credit: Stojan Stojanovski/Kristijan Gjoreski/Igor Nastoski/Ohrid Astronomy Association

A comet from the Perseid Meteor Shower in 2015. Image credit: Stojan Stojanovski/Kristijan Gjoreski/Igor Nastoski/Ohrid Astronomy Association

Why the Perseids are so clearly visible

Perseids occur during peak summer night-time, when clear skies are available for better viewing. They are also one of the most "plentiful showers" (with 50 to 100 meteors seen per hour) which increases the chances for sky gazers to catch them, over more than one potential night of meteor gazing.

Another reason behind the Perseids being brighter than other meteors is their fireballs – exceptionally bright meteors that are spectacular enough to be seen over a very wide area. These meteors originate from "cometary material" and are basically huge explosions that emit light and colour.

How to watch the Perseid meteors

Ideally, the Perseids are best viewed in the Northern Hemisphere during the hours just before dawn. But sometimes, people can catch it as early as 10 pm. NASA also suggests staying up late, or waking up in pre-dawn hours on the nights of 11-13 August.

The meteors will be less visible within city limits, due to higher artificial light pollution. So a safe spot in the outskirts, where there isn't much pollution and few or no buildings to block your view is ideal.

No telescopes or binoculars are needed to observe a meteor shower. Just lie on your back for around thirty minutes to let your eyes adjust to the dark, and enjoy the fireworks!

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