Not all of us can indulge in a midnight showing of a blockbuster movie, but the Perseid meteor shower is one summer “light show” that’s definitely worth staying up late to see! This stunning spectacle is bound to inspire awe and joy in all viewers, whatever their level of interest in astronomy. So mark your calendar for August 12 and invite your family and friends for a night under falling stars. The Perseid shower occurs each year at this time as debris from a passing comet (109P/Swift-Tuttle) streaks through Earth’s upper atmosphere at altitudes of 50–75 miles.
Sporadic meteors, often called falling or shooting stars, occur at any time on any night in any direction, maybe as many as half a dozen times per hour. The Perseids are different. These meteors fly by at a much faster rate and from a single region of the sky, the vicinity of the Perseus constellation, from which the shower gets its name.
Showtime begins soon after Perseus clears the horizon, about an hour before midnight. Astronomers anticipate an especially good show this year because the Moon will be setting just when the shower begins to rev up. Depending on the darkness of your location, you may be able to see as many as one meteor per minute between 2 and 3 AM. (Though August 12 marks the shower’s peak, the display can also be seen a day or two before or after that date.)
The Perseid meteor shower offers a great opportunity to gather with family and friends and enjoy the cosmic show. A conversation about big issues, such as our tiny place in the vast universe, is almost inevitable when taking in the night sky. So I invite you to prepare for your own Perseid party by reading Why the Universe Is the Way It Is or by going through our small group DVD series, If God Made the Universe. (The Perseids provide a good way to kick off or wrap up the series.) Even something as simple as inviting your kids or grandkids or friends and neighbors to watch the meteor shower with you can open up spiritual discussions.
Here are a few practical suggestions for hosting a Perseid party
• Choose the darkest spot accessible to you, with no big trees or buildings to block your view.
• Take lounge chairs or comfy cushions to lie on, and plenty of warm clothing—and don’t forget to pack light refreshments if you plan to stay for a while.
• Arrange yourselves with heads together and feet pointing outward in different directions.
• Keep track of the rising frequency of meteors over the course of your viewing time, whether you stay out for several minutes or several hours.
• If you go to a popular viewing site, be sure to turn off your headlights and use flashlights as you approach your parking spot. (Cover the flashlight with red cellophane to help you dark-adapt.)