Every August, Mother Nature treats us to a brilliant light show: the Perseid meteor shower. Even for the most amateur of astronomers, this summer star show is one of the year’s best with up to 100 shooting stars zipping across the sky each hour. But for 2016, the Perseids are expected to be twice as nice with up to 200 meteors visible each hour under ideal conditions, says Bill Cooke, the lead at the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office.
The Perseid meteor shower gets its name from the constellation Perseus, from which the meteors appear to originate. In reality, the meteors are space debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet, which takes around 132 years to orbit the sun. When the Earth passes through the comet’s debris field once a year, the particles (traveling 132,000 miles per hour!) burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, creating the sea of shooting stars we see each August.
The Perseids will be particularly magnificent this year, thanks to Jupiter’s gravitational pull. “Jupiter is the strongest gravitational influence in the solar system outside the sun, so it tends to be a bully and push things out of their paths in the solar system,” Cooke says. While the Earth typically only grazes by Swift-Tuttle’s comet tail, this year Jupiter is pushing the comet closer to Earth.
But when exactly is the best time to view the Perseids? The meteor shower will peak after after midnight on Thursday, August 11, especially after the waxing gibbous moon sets just after 1 a.m., and continue into early Friday, August 12. To ensure the best view, get away from city lights and give your eyes 30 to 40 minutes to fully adjust to the darkness. Dress comfortably, bring a blanket, and pack bug spray. To properly enjoy the show, you will need to spend a few hours outside. If weather or lights affect your viewing, don’t worry: NASA will be broadcasting the show live on its UStream channel on both August 11 and 12.