The most prolific meteor shower of the year is the Perseids, which peak overnight on Aug. 11-12 and Aug. 12-13. If skies are clear it will be a spectacular show because the moon will only be a slim sliver of a crescent. If you were hoping to see the Perseid Meteor Shower this weekend, the odds aren’t good in northern Virginia. The National Weather Service said skies will be mostly cloudy on both Saturday and Sunday nights, with rain chances of 60 percent.
In normal years, the Perseids produce about 60-70 meteors an hour, and they’re typically rich in fireballs. In outburst years, such as 2016, the rate can more than double to around 150 to 200 meteors an hour. The peak this year will come peak late Sunday night (Aug. 12) into the predawn hours of Monday morning.
To get the best views, find a dark sky. It may be your backyard if you live in a rural area; others may have to get a bit creative. If your state has dark sky preserves, plan to go there. If you’re in a major metropolitan area including Baltimore and Washington, D.C. you can still find areas suitable for meteor viewing.
Many of the Commonwealth’s state parks have viewing programs planned, find a full list here.
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NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke says outlandish claims often accompany reports of celestial events, including one last year that the Perseids would be the “brightest shower in recorded human history” and that meteors could be visible during the day.
While undeniably stunning, the Perseids never reach storm levels of thousands of meteors an hour, Cooke said, noting that the best Perseid performance on record was in 1993, when they flew at a rate of more than 300 meteors an hour.
But that shouldn’t dim your meteor-watching plans at all. While both nights of the peak will be spectacular, look to Aug. 12-13 for the best meteor shower of 2018, Cooke said. The meteors begin flying after midnight and continue into the predawn hours.
“This year the moon will be near new moon, it will be a crescent, which means it will set before the Perseid show gets underway after midnight,” Cooke told Space.com. “The moon is very favorable for the Perseids this year, and that’ll make the Perseids probably the best shower of 2018 for people who want to go out and view it.”
The Perseids, which run annually from July 17-Aug. 24, are produced as the Earth passes through dust left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, discovered in 1862. The peak occurs when the Earth passes through the densest, dustiest area.
The pieces of debris heat up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn in a bright burst of light as they travel across the sky at about 37 miles per second. Most of the meteors are about the size of a grain of sand, so there’s little chance one will make it down to Earth as a meteorite.
The meteors fall between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia, but just look up and you should be able to see them from anywhere in the sky.
Be prepared to sit outside for a few hours. The longer you watch, the more you’ll see. It’ll take about half an hour for your eyes to adjust to the dark. Be sure to take along a comfortable camp chair, or maybe even a blanket so you can lay on the ground and get a panoramic view.
While you’re waiting for the Perseids, you should be able to see Mars until around 4 a.m. local time and Saturn, which will be visible until about 2 a.m. local time. Venus and Jupiter both set before the peak viewing hours for the Perseids, at 9:30 and 11 p.m., respectively.