The Perseid meteor shower is an annual star-gazing summer spectacular, but some years are better than others.
Jim Cahill, an amateur astronomer from Erwinna, Bucks County, said this year is shaping up to look pretty good — or at least better than 2019.
“Last year we had a full moon that drowned out the whole sky,” Cahill said. “This year, the moon will be in its last quarter.”
In other words, the sky will be darker, with less moonlight. Cahill said the skies will likely have less cloud cover early in the week, though more clouds are forecast for Wednesday.
The Perseid, watched by millions each year, is expected to reach its peak late Tuesday and into early Wednesday. It is usually the best meteor shower to view for those living in the Northern Hemisphere. It occurs from July into August, and peaks with up to 60 meteors an hour. The meteors are essentially dust left behind from the Swift-Tuttle comet. The particles burn up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere and are often referred to as shooting or falling stars.
Earthsky.org says the Perseids peak on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
Cahill is willing to drive hours to view such celestial events. His favorite viewing location is Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County, Pa, about 260 miles away. But he knows many aren’t able or willing to drive that far.
For Philadelphians, it will be tough to view because of city lights.
The best viewing places locally are state parks, he said, such as Nockamixon in Quakertown, or in more rural areas of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties. Local and county parks often close at sunset, and the best viewing won’t be until after midnight, though you can see shooting stars before then.
Jersey Shore beaches, such as Avalon’s, are also great places for viewing, he said. And the Pinelands, at locations such as Belleplain State Forest, also make great vantage points.
Dwight Dulsky of the Bucks-Mont Astronomical Association said that many astronomy clubs would normally hold public viewings, but are not this year because of coronavirus restrictions on large events.
Dulsky said the best time for observation is pre-dawn, but sky gazers can still see meteors streaking across the sky in the earlier evening.
He said the best chance to see one is to find any dark place in an open area away from outdoor lights, parking lots, and towns.
“No binoculars or telescopes are needed,” Dulsky said in an email, “just a comfortable lawn chair (and bug spray).”
He said it is best to make your eyes “dark adapted” by not looking at any light source for at least 20 minutes. That includes car headlights, cell phones, or flashlights.
Cahill also suggests downloading one of the many sky watching apps, such as SkyView or SkySafari, for more information. He uses the app to look for the Perseus constellation, named after Perseus of Greek mythology.
The Perseid meteor shower appears to have its point of origin in the constellation, though, as Dulsky notes, that is an optical illusion created by the chance alignment that the dust tail matches up with Perseus.
After you find the constellation, sit or lie back and enjoy the show.