Tonight’s Best Late Show: The Perseid Meteor Shower

The Greek hero Perseus is well-known for slaying Medusa and flying off on his winged sandals with her head, with which he killed the sea monster Cetus (famously but incorrectly referred to in film as “the Kraken”) and rescuing Princess Andromeda (famously but incorrectly depicted in film as a blonde – she was Ethiopian). His heroism was rewarded in ancient times by having a constellation named after him, and every August, hundreds of meteors falls from the sky over several days. Seeming to come from the constellation Perseus, this show is named the Perseid Shower.  

Optimum viewing was last night, but you can still see the show all the way until August 24. 

The annual shower peaks after 2 a.m., and astronomers invite people bored from months spent trapped at home by quarantine to step out onto lawns, balconies, parks, roofs, and parking lots and watch 50 to 100 flaming tears streak downward every hour. 

The meteors don’t actually have anything to do with the distant stars which form the pattern we call the constellation Perseus. They are bits of rock and dust that trail along in the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle which goes around the Sun every 133 years. Earth passes through that orbital track once a year, and a few bits of it become the meteors we see as the Perseids. 

The American Meteor Society has some advice for better viewing:  

Allow your eyes enough time to adjust to low light levels, and don’t allow artificial light to spoil your adapted vision (like, by looking at a phone screen).  

Look about halfway up the sky.  

Be patient, allowing enough time to pass. 

Above all, though, try to find a location where there is as little artificial light around as possible. As Cat Faber says of astronomers in her song “Word of God, Those there are who name the stars, and watch the sky by night / Seeking out the darkest place to better see the light. 

If the sky is overcast tonight, you still have options for seeing Perseids. Space.com reports that NASA’s All-Sky Fireball Network already has some impressive footage of Perseid meteors that burned over the U.S. last weekend, and there will be a live broadcast of the meteor shower’s peak from a camera at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, beginning about 10 p.m. PDT Tuesday night until sunrise over Alabama on Wednesday the August 12 – unless the sky is overcast in Huntsville. 

If you can’t watch tonight, there will still be more Perseids over the next few nights, with the best viewing always after midnight. 

John M. Burt