Perseids! All this week!
Many people think that meteor shower viewing is only for the lucky people with night sky views like these (link to The World at Night – TWAN photo site. BEAUTIFUL STUFF. GO THERE. TRUST ME.)
Ahem. This is not so, especially with this year’s Perseid meteor shower. If you live in an area where it gets semi-dark and you can see a lot of sky (or you can get to an area like that) you can see meteors from this amazing shower. All you have to do is wait until it gets nice and dark, cover yourself in bug repellent, head outside and look up. Although the Perseids are concentrated in the northeast, it helps to not focus on any particular area, just let your eyes relax and see if you can catch any meteors shooting across the sky.
Meteors are often called shooting stars, but really they are much smaller and closer to Earth than stars. The meteors of the Perseid shower are pieces of debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which passes by the Earth every 135 years. When the Earth passes through the debris field left behind by the comet, some of the rocks and dust enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up as they travel through.
The Perseids get their name because they appear to originate from the constellation Perseus in the northeastern summer sky. Note — as my sister April points out in the comments, the constellation Perseus is properly called the radiant of the Perseids. Most meteor showers are named for the constellation they appear to radiate from. For example, there are the mid-November Leonids and the late October Orionids. Both of these showers are also caused by debris left behind by comets (Comet Tempel-Tuttle* and Halley’s comet, respectively).
Why are the Perseids so popular? Several reasons. 1) For many in the Northern Hemisphere it’s a lot more pleasant to be outside staring up at the sky in the summertime than in mid-November. Although a sleeping bag and some hot chocolate go a long way to mitigating that. 2) Many people are on vacation, making it easier to stay up late and watch meteors. 3) The Perseids usually put on a good show, with many more meteors per hour than other showers, making the odds of seeing a meteor streak pretty good. This year will be particularly good for viewing, as the moon was new on the 10th and large swaths of the country are expected to be cloud-free for at least part of the peak viewing time over the next three days.
For the particularly geeky out there, two ways to enhance your viewing experience: 1) count meteors and share your data with others. Learn how at Sky and Telescope. 2) Listen for meteor pings on Space Weather Radio.