Extraterrestrial expo: Perseid meteor shower to be at peak performance this weekend

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Skywatchers mobilize! The best and one of the brighter extraterrestrial expos of the year is happening now and will be at peak performance the night of Aug. 12.

The Perseid meteor shower decorates the night sky every summer. The plentiful Perseids — which can fall at an average rate of about 50 to 100 meteors per hour — streak through Earth’s atmosphere at nearly 40 mph each night from about mid-July till near the end of August.

An outburst of Perseid meteors lights up the sky in August 2009 in this time-lapse image. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

This year, the most activity happens Saturday night into Sunday morning. Anyone with a clear view can expect to see 60 to 150 shooting stars per hour traveling from east to west across the sky, radiating from their namesake constellation Perseus toward the northeast, between the upside down “W” of constellation Cassiopeia and bright star Capella.

The best time to view the shower is between midnight and dawn. Activity will likely be at its greatest in the hour before dawn Sunday.

The high rate of meteors that fall throughout the duration of the Perseids is part of why they are considered the best meteor shower of the year. They also have a reputation for producing bigger and brighter white hot streaks of superheated air as meteors strike the top of the atmosphere roughly 80 miles up.

The meteors, particles about the size of Grape Nuts cereal nuggets, leave behind long “wakes” of light and color as they fall, kind of like how airplanes leave trails of vapor, and burn to soot and disintegrate.


Plus, they’re also known for fireballs. These explosions of light and color, caused by larger particles falling through the atmosphere, can last longer than an average meteor streak.

“Those are truly amazing to see,” said University of Hawai‘i Institute for Astronomy education and outreach specialist Carolyn Kaichi.

This year’s peak activity night should be especially spectacular since the moon is in a waning crescent stage and won’t wash out much of the sky with light, even when it rises before sunrise.

“That’s why folks are more excited about the shower this year,” Kaichi said, adding because there will be no moon interference, people can start watching anytime after dark Saturday.

Most of the meteors seen in this composite are Perseids. Notice how they all appear to be streaking from the same direction? The Perseids appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus. (Credit: NASA/MEO)

Darkness is key for the best viewing experience. You want to be as far away from city lights as possible. Kaichi said the darker the skies, the more you will be able to catch a glimpse of the smaller streaks, too.


Then, it’s just a matter of getting comfy for the show.

“Typically, the best way to view a meteor shower is to get comfortable with a blanket or lawn chair and look up,” Kaichi said. “No special equipment is necessary!”

She also recommended getting a good app to help find Perseus if you’re not all that familiar with the constellations. She uses Star Walk, but there are many others. But you don’t have to stare at the constellation. That’s just from where the meteors look like they originate. The meteors can generally be seen all over the sky.

The Perseids actually are remnant particles left by the comet Swift-Tuttle, discovered in July 1862 by American astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle. The comet’s orbit around the sun brings it the closest to our star every 133 years.

Each time Swift-Tuttle visits the inner solar system, the sun heats it up and vaporizes a part of its dusty ice and solar radiation pressure nudges the solid particles into the comet’s wake.


Those particles spread out along its orbit. After thousands of visits, a ring of dust was created around the comet’s path. When Earth passes through that cloud of debris each year, just like when sand hits a car’s windshield in a dust storm, the particles strike the Earth’s atmosphere and become the falling stars of the Perseids.

Swift-Tuttle last passed through the inner solar system in 1992.

What’s Up: August 2023 Skywatching Tips from NASA. Skip to the 1:05 mark in the video to watch about the Perseid meteor shower.

Fun fact: Swift-Tuttle is a large comet. According to NASA, the comet’s nucleus is 16 miles across. That’s nearly twice as big as the object that is thought to have led to the demise of the dinosaurs.

The Perseids are the only meteor shower to ever delay a space shuttle launch, which happened in 1993 because of concerns about activity forecast to be extremely heavy, increasing the chance the shuttle while in orbit of Earth could be damaged by a piece of debris.

Fortunately though, we don’t have to worry about going the way of the ancient reptiles because of them.

“Because comets are mostly ‘dusty snow,’ these pieces rarely, if ever, fall to the ground,” Kaichi said.

Depending on where you are, the pesky weather might get in the way of viewing the peak of the meteor shower, especially on the Hilo side of the Big Island where the forecast as of Thursday afternoon called for mostly cloudy skies overnight Saturday.

But conditions looked favorable in other parts of the state, including Kailua-Kona on the west side of the Big Island and Līhu‘e on Kaua‘i.

Here’s a pro viewing tip from NASA: Remember to let your eyes become adjusted to the dark — it takes about 30 minutes. You’ll see more meteors that way. Also, try to stay off your phone, as looking at devices with bright screens will negatively affect your night vision and hence reduce the number of meteors you see.

No matter what, if you can, get out under the falling stars Saturday night and enjoy the show.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
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