80 shooting stars per hour: How to catch the peak of the Perseid meteor shower tonight

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A meteor streaks across the sky in the early morning during the annual Perseid meteor shower near the town of Mitzpe Ramon, southern Israel, August 13, 2019. This year’s shower is expected to peak tonight. Photo by Amir Cohe/Reuters.

The coronavirus outbreak has put a lot of typical summer entertainment on hold — no county fair, no movie theaters, no concerts or music festivals. But one show is happening, which you can check out while physical distancing. It’s the Perseid meteor shower, which runs for more than a month. It’s expected to peak tonight.

Edwin Krupp, director of LA’s Griffith Observatory, explains that meteor showers are produced by small particles that comets leave behind while orbiting the sun. Earth passes through these clouds of particles all the time, and the particles can collide with the Earth’s upper atmosphere and heat up due to their high speeds. That’s when people can see those brief flashes of light in the sky, also commonly called shooting stars.

At the height of the Perseid meteor shower, people can see up to 80 shooting stars per hour, says Krupp. But the night sky must be dark and clear. 

What’s the best time to watch tonight? 

Krupp says the shower picks up after midnight and continues to dawn. However, he notes that tonight’s moon is going to be fairly bright, rising around 12:22 a.m. and diluting the night sky. “Get out there certainly by midnight and then just deal with the moon as you can,” he advises. 

Is there an optimal place for viewing meteors?

Somewhere dark, about an hour away from the city and its lights. An elevated location will help. People can try Angeles National Forest, Los Padres National Forest, or Joshua Tree National Park. 

Krupp says if you can’t get out of town, you can always try the beach or Palos Verdes, but you’ll still get sky glow, which won’t allow you to see 80 meteors in an hour. “But you will see meteors going over the sky now and then through the course of the night and through the hour. … If your patience is high, you will be rewarded because you're bound to see a few.”

If there’s too much fog tonight — forecasters are expecting a marine layer to show up — can people see meteorites on Wednesday night? 

Krupp says yes, and that this shower is a very dependable shower.

“We're really going through the debris of a comet known as  Swift–Tuttle. And so that material allows us to encounter it anywhere between the 17th of July … all the way through the 24th of August. So you can stick it out for another 10 days,” he says. 

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