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Space + FlightSpace & Flight

The 2020 Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight

Here’s how to watch and what you’ll see.

BySukee BennettNOVA NextNOVA Next

A meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in West Virginia. Image credit: Bill Ingalls, NASA

There were nights every August and November when I couldn’t sleep.

My dad would bundle me in my sleeping bag—a forest green junior rendition of his own—and carry me to a lawn chair outside. He’d put a cup of steaming hot chocolate in my hand. Together, we’d wait for the show to begin.

These nights were not bouts of insomnia fought off with fresh air. My six-year-old self and my dad chose to stay up until the early hours of the morning. In November, when the Leonid meteor showers were in full bloom, I’d sleep from 3-6 a.m. and scramble off to school red-eyed. In August, after watching the Perseids perform for hours, I’d sleep in like a teenager.

I credit these spectacles, put on by the cosmos twice a year, for my unending passion for science and understanding the world around us.

I may not be alone. The Perseid meteor shower, which peaks overnight from 2 a.m. to dawn local time, is one of the most popular of the year, Rachel Treisman reports for NPR: Warmer summer temperatures and high rates of meteors are hard for astronomy aficionados to resist. If you’re able, find a spot away from city lights, lie on your back or sit in a camping chair, and gaze toward the night sky. Meteors will appear like faint streaks of light that gradually fade within moments.

Meteors form when meteoroids, objects in space that range in size from dust grains to about 80-foot asteroids, enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed and burn up.

Debris left behind by the ancient comet Swift-Tuttle creates the Perseid meteors. Every year in August, Earth ventures through trails of this debris. “NASA says it's ‘one of the best’ meteor shows of the year. That's because of the sheer number of meteors50 to 100 meteors to catch per hour as well as their fireballs—larger, brighter explosions of light and color that last longer than an average meteor streak,” Treisman writes.

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Unfortunately, this year’s shower will be somewhat impeded by the Moon, which is currently in its last quarter phase. This will limit observers’ view of the shower peak, “reducing the visible meteors from over 60 per hour down to 15-20 per hour,” Emily Clay reports for NASA. “But the Perseids are rich in bright meteors and fireballs, so it will still be worth going out in the early morning to catch some of nature’s fireworks.”

With Comet NEOWISE now making a 6,800-year exit from our solar system and a global pandemic still very much underway, any meteor shower spectacle is better than none. I think my six-year-old self would agree.

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