The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most impressive displays of shooting stars you'll see throughout the year – and it's peaking right now in the US (and soon in the UK).
The display of shooting stars, caused by Earth moving into the path of debris left by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, has been going since mid-July, but is peaking in the US this morning and will be doing the same in the UK during the early hours of August 13.
That's because the Earth is moving into the most intense part of the comet's stream and ice and rock, producing an impressive light show for stargazers and photographers.
Even better, the Perseids are putting on a particularly good display this year for, because the moon is kindly setting early in the evening – which means blacker skies and far less light pollution for the shooting stars to contend with.
The only potential obstacle is likely to be cloud and smoke, particularly in regions of the US, due to the recent wildfires. But some areas, including California, Texas and the East Coast are seeing good visibility, and there could be further opportunities (for both the US and UK) into the early hours of August 13.
Whether you're looking to watch, photograph or livestream the celestial event, here's everything you need to know about this year's Perseids meteor shower.
When is the Perseid meteor shower?
The Perseid meteor shower is peaking right now in the US, with the best time expected to be just before dawn (around 4am local time).
According to NASA (opens in new tab), you should be able to catch between 40-50 meteors per hour in most regions, assuming you're away from urban light pollution. That's not quite the 100 meteors per hour rate expected in east Europe, but still works out at one meteor every couple of minutes – well worth staying up for.
The Perseid meteor shower takes place every year from around July 17 to August 24, but the early hours of August 12-13 are expected to be its peak this year, as you can see from NASA's graph below.
Stargazers in the UK and Europe could see an even higher rate of meteors – typically around one per minute if you're in a dark spot, but even as high as 100 per hour in the best spots.
Again, the peak time will be from midnight on Thursday August 12 until around 5am on August 13, though it's possible you'll be able spot some soon after sunset. The shower show will peak in the very early hours of Thursday morning, though, so that's the time to pencil into your stargazing diary.
Why is 2021 a good year for the Perseid meteor shower?
As well as being the most active meteor shower of the year, the Perseids are brilliantly-timed for northern hemisphere stargazers.
Since the shooting stars are more numerous after midnight, the reasonably warm temperatures of August make it much easier to stand outside for long periods than for the next best meteor shower, the Geminids, which peak in mid-December when it's too cold to stay outdoors for long.
But 2021 is expected to be a particularly good year to watch the Perseids for another reason: the moon.
A bright full moon often ruins the Perseids' visibility, but this year the Moon is edging toward new, so there should be no moonlight whatsoever during the peak viewing hours.
Instead, the only possible obstacle is expected to be cloud or haze, so check the local forecast in your region (or if you're in the US, this handy Fire and Smoke map (opens in new tab)) to see if you're likely to get a window of Perseid-watching opportunity.
Where are the Perseid shooting stars?
To see the Perseids' fireworks you need three things: complete darkness (so find somewhere remote, or turn off all the lights in the back of your house), clear skies, and the patience to look at the sky for about 20 minutes unrewarded.
If you can manage that last one, congratulate yourself for being among the minority of Perseid watchers: you could then be rewarded with up to 100 shooting stars in the next hour.
You could see shooting stars anywhere in the night sky, though as the name suggests they will appear to radiate from the constellation of Perseus – which means you just need to point yourself vaguely to the north or, if you're in southern latitudes, towards the north-eastern sky.
What do I need and what am I looking for?
The Perseids' meteors can show up in any part of the sky, so you'll improve your chances by finding somewhere with a wide view of the horizon – naturally, the fewer buildings and trees that are in the way, the better.
Most of its shooting stars will be visible for just a fraction of a second from the corner of your eyes. But every now and then, you'll also see big, bright, sparkling 'earth-grazer' fireballs that often appear to leave a trail behind them, and should last a full second or so.
A little patience (and a rucksack full of snacks) is advisable though – it can take your eyes at least half an hour to adjust to the night's darkness. Resist the temptation to look at your smartphone or go back inside your house – every time your eyes see white light, your night vision goes back to zero, and you will have to wait another 20 minutes for it to return.
If you're venturing out, a torch with a red light can help preserve your night vision. The USB-rechargeable Petzl Tikka (opens in new tab)or the cheaper AlpKit Gamma III (opens in new tab) are good choices. Aside from this and a comfortable blanket or sun lounger, though, that's all you really need – avoid a telescope or pair of binoculars, as these will limit your view of the night sky so much that you won't see any shooting stars.
Settle in for a good 2-3 hours, though, and you should be treated to an impressive show – particularly as this year's moon will be in its waxing crescent phase during the peak hours.
How do I find Perseus?
If you're unfamiliar with the night sky at this time of year, there are a plethora of planetarium apps for phones and tablets. Use them sparingly, but apps like Star Walk 2 (opens in new tab) will help you find you the constellation of Perseus, which is just below the W-shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.
Fix your gaze on this patch of sky, and above, but don't get dogmatic about it: a meteor might just as easily start above your head and whizz south. However, to look low to the southern horizon would be a mistake.
You'll probably notice the massive Summer Triangle nearby in the eastern sky – three very bright stars that sits across the Milky Way. Stay outside long enough looking for meteors and your eyes may get sensitive enough to glimpse this wonderful sight.
Are there any Perseid meteor shower live streams?
If you can't see the Perseids in person, multiple news channels are live-streaming the meteor shower on their websites with raw footage.
The best source with context is likely to be the NASA live stream (opens in new tab), which will also be available on its Marshall Space Flight Center Facebook (opens in new tab) and Twitter (opens in new tab) accounts. It'll take place overnight on August 11-12 (from 11pm–6am EDT), though there are cloudy skies on the night of August 11, it's promised to try again at the same times on August 12-13.
A couple of big observatories are also planning Perseids live-streams on YouTube. The Lowell Observatory (opens in new tab) in Arizona, USA (above) will be streaming from midnight EDT on August 12 (which works out as 5am BST), while the Kopernik Observatory in New York will be doing the same on its YouTube channel every night this week.
How do I photograph the Perseids meteor shower?
There will rarely be better conditions for photographing the Perseids than this week's almost moon-less skies, but there is also a large element of hit-and-hope involved.
Forget your smartphone, as its sensor is nowhere near sensitive enough. What you need is a DSLR or mirrorless camera (ideally a full-frame model) with manual controls, mounted on a tripod.
Choosing the right lens and focal length is a bit of a balancing act. Generally speaking, the best astrophotography lenses tend to be pretty wide, in the 14-20mm focal range on a full-frame camera (or around 10-14mm on an APS-C model). On the other hand, Perseid meteor trails can look pretty small and sometimes barely visible when shooting that wide.
As you're unlikely to be buying a new lens just to photograph this meteor shower, we'd recommend grabbing whichever lens you have that's closest to the 28-50mm range (or 17-32mm on APS-C cameras).
The Perseid meteors can appear pretty much anywhere in the sky, so it's best to find some foreground interest for your shot – like a tree or, even better, a decommissioned antenna like the ones at The Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in the UK (above).
Switch your lens to manual focus and set the focus to infinity – or point it at a bright star and manually focus on it. Set your ISO to 800 and your aperture to f/2.8, and take some long-exposure shots over 20-30 seconds. You'll need to either use your camera's self-timer or a remote shutter to avoid camera-shake and blur.
Check your test shots to make sure they're sharp and correctly exposed, making any tweaks if needed. Another option is to use your camera's built-in interval timer to shoot a timelapse, taking about 100 or more 3o-second exposures one after the other. You can then use the likes of Photoshop or StarStaX (opens in new tab) (on Mac) to create a star-trail, which will (hopefully) have shooting stars all over the image.