Tonight, one of the most famous and reliable meteor showers will peak: the Perseids. The Perseids are debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, strewn along its orbital path, and though they present no danger at all, they can be very pretty. Astronomers are predicting a peak rate of 100 meteors per hour, if you’ve got very dark skies. And this year, the Moon is cooperating with that, being a thin waxing crescent.
How to watch
The only equipment you need is your eyeballs! Telescopes and binoculars do more harm than good, by restricting your field of view. So the best thing to do is get a thermos full of coffee, spread a blanket on the ground, lie back, and get comfortable. Scan the sky above you and wait. If possible, find a dark-sky site, but you should be able to see a few even from suburbia. You’ll just have to wait longer since the dim ones won’t be visible. It’s even more fun if you can find a loved one to come out with you and cuddle. 😉
The meteors are said to come from Perseus (hence “Perseids”), which this time of year is to the northeast. But don’t just look there — the meteor’s trails point towards Perseus, but they could be anywhere in the sky over you they hit the atmosphere and leave their glowing plasma trail as they disintegrate.
Other Stuff To See
Of course, you don’t have to just look for meteors. While you’re lying on your back is also a great time to spot satellites. They move much more slowly, and their light tends to be steadier, although satellites can flare or flicker depending on their structure and motion. Iridium communications satellites are famous for brilliant flares, and the International Space Station is an easy target for anyone, if it’s passing over while you’re looking, because depending on the angle, it can shine as brightly as Venus. For satellite pass predictions customized to your location, and also Iridium flare predictions, check out Heavens Above. You’ve missed the opportunity to see the Japanese HTV “Kounotori-4” flying in tandem with the ISS, since it was berthed yesterday, but there will be more chances for that sort of thing, so keep checking Heavens Above for favorable passes!
Another thing to watch for, if you’re at high latitude, is aurorae. These are more difficult to predict, and usually depend on solar activity. There is a 60% chance of geomagnetic activity tonight, when a coronal mass ejection is predicted to strike the Earth’s magnetosphere, but these don’t always go where they’re expected to go; it’s even harder than predicting the weather on Earth. So check out SpaceWeather.com for up-to-date information, download the 3D Sun app for iOS or Android, or just click this link for a live look at the north auroral oval (here’s the south one) as seen by the POES spacecraft. If the yellow or red area is over your region or fairly near it, you may have a spectacular display.
SPACE.com: Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend