Perseid Meteor Shower

Image by Thomas Heaton
Article by: Science Focus

On any given night of stargazing, you can expect to see about two meteors every hour. Meteors, commonly known as ‘shooting stars’, are flashes of light caused by pieces of dust or rock burning up as they pass through the Earth’s atmosphere. Incredibly, these are usually the size of a grain of sand, but they travel so fast that they create a trail that glows as brightly as the stars.

Every so often, the Earth’s orbit brings us into a particularly dense patch of cosmic debris – a trail of rock and dust left in the wake of an asteroid or comet. We see this as a meteor shower.

The Perseid (‘Per-see-id’) meteor shower is one of the most active in the northern hemisphere. Caused by debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseids are named after the constellation that the meteors appear to come from: Perseus (astronomers call this point the meteor shower’s ‘radiant’).

When can you see the Perseid meteor shower 2021 in the UK?

This year, the Perseids will peak on 12-13 August, but you can spot them anytime from around 16 July to 23 August. The meteors can be seen at any time of night, but the darker it is, the better your chances, so aim for between midnight and 5am.

This weekend, particularly the evening of Sunday 8 August, may be one of your best chances to see the shower, depending on the weather.

“It coincides reasonably well with the new Moon,” says Prof Michael Merrifield, an astronomer at the University of Nottingham. “The new Moon is on the 8th this month and the peak of the Perseids is on the 12th.

“The new Moon will make the sky that bit darker so that you can see some of the fainter things. If you’re in a city, probably the Moon is not the dominant source of light. But once you get out into the countryside or get away from the bright lights of the city, probably the most dominant sort of brightness in the sky is the Moon.”

How can I see the Perseid meteor shower 2021?

Let your eyes adjust, then look directly up. Although the meteors originate in Perseus, it’s not important to specifically find that constellation – they can travel across the whole sky. So make sure you can see as much sky as possible, without obstruction from buildings or trees, to give yourself the best chance.

What equipment do I need to see the meteor shower?

“You need no special equipment at all. The last thing you want is a telescope for this, because actually they spread out all across the sky,” says Merrifield. “Telescopes are very good for looking at very small bit of the sky, but not good for trying to pick up what’s happening across a wide field of view.

“From my perspective, the two key pieces of observing equipment for observing meteor showers is a deck chair – because you want to have a comfortable place to sit – and, if it’s cold, a duvet.”

Luckily, since the Perseids fall in the middle of August, it shouldn’t be too cold, making it one of the best meteor showers to watch all year.

“The best thing about [the Perseids] is that it’s warm out there,” says Merrifield. “One of my favourite experiences of observing the Perseids was when I was on holiday in Cornwall, and in the cottage we were renting, we had a hot tub. Lying outside in the hot tub, watching shooting stars go past, it was the best experience of seeing shooting stars.”

How many meteors will I be able to see?

How many meteors you’ll be able to see will change over the course of the shower. On the peak on 12-13 August, you may be able to see up to an astonishing 150 meteors per hour  – at least, provided the sky is clear.