SHERMAN OAKS, CA — The thief coronavirus has robbed Americans of many of their summer pleasures, but it can’t steal the annual Perseid meteor shower as it builds to its peak, when 50 to 75 shooting stars an hour may be seen in the skies over Sherman Oaks.
Whether you’ll be able to see this dazzling show in Earth’s celestial canopy depends on the weather in Sherman Oaks during the shower’s Aug. 11-13 peak. The National Weather Service says skies over the next week will be partly cloudy in Sherman Oaks.
The hours between midnight and sunrise are the best time to scan the sky for the summertime classic, which is known to produce fireballs. The moon is in its last quarter phase, and that will mar the sky show a bit. But the Perseids tend to be bright, so you should be able to see a fair number of them.
The brightest of meteors are known as “fireballs,” and they’re at least as bright as the planets Jupiter or Venus. NASA meteor expert Bill Cooke says the Perseids produce more fireballs than any other meteor shower — to the extent that he’s nicknamed them the “fireball champion.” During the Perseids, it’s not unusual to see a fireball every few hours, Cooke says.
NASA’s research suggests the Perseids are rich in fireballs because of the size of Swift/Tuttle’s nucleus — about 16 miles (or 26 kilometers) in diameter.
“Most other comets are much smaller, with nuclei only a few kilometers across. As a result, Comet Swift-Tuttle produces a large number of meteoroids, many of which are large enough to produce fireballs,” he wrote for NASA.
Though viewing is best after midnight from anywhere in the sky, the evening hours may offer a special treat known as an earthgrazer. They’re rare, but a sight to behold — a long, slow and colorful meteor that streaks horizontally across the sky.
The peak dates aren’t the only time to see the Perseids, which have been streaking across the sky since mid-July and will continue through Aug. 24. So consider watching past the peak dates, and especially after Aug. 17, when moonless skies prevail, according to Earthsky.org.
The rambling Delta Aquarid meteor shower continues through mid-month, so you may see a few of those, too. The Delta Aquarids are not as prolific as the Perseids, but up to 10 percent of them leave persistent trains — that is, glowing ionized gas trails that can last for a second or two after the meteor passes.
Dark skies are the best for meteor shower viewing. Near Los Angeles, some good options include Holcomb Valley Road, Joshua Tree National Park (especially Sky's The Limit on the park's northern edge), or Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in the Cleveland National Forest.
Either shower can be seen from anywhere in the sky, though Earthsky.org advises placing yourself in the moon’s shadow near a barn or other structure. The meteors will be more visible.
The other thing required for successful meteor watching is patience. NASA’s Cooke told Space.com meteor shower watching requires an investment in preparation and time, but is “the simplest form of astronomy there is.”
There’s no need for a telescope or binoculars, which actually are a disadvantage because the more sky you’re able to see, the greater the chance of seeing a meteor. Give yourself half an hour to 45 minutes to adjust to the dark skies. And, Cooke advises, avoid looking at your phone while you’re waiting to see a shooting star.
“You know, that's something about meteor observing: You let your eyes adapt to the dark, and what kills [meteor viewing for] most people nowadays is that they'll look at their phones, and that bright screen just totally trashes your night vision," Cooke said.
Each meteor shower has a radiant point where the meteors appear to originate; with the Perseids, it’s the constellation Perseus. But the farther you get away from it, the better the chances of seeing longer streaks and fireballs.
Meteors are produced when the Earth passes through debris left behind by comets as it orbits the sun. The Perseids are produced from dust from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last entered our solar system in 1992 and won’t return again until July 2126.
There are no meteor showers in September, but the fall offers plenty of opportunity to see shooting stars, especially during those from the Geminid meteor shower. The only thing the Perseids have over the Geminids is that they occur in the summer, when it’s comfortable outside, but the Dec. 7-17 shower is known to produce up to 120 multicolored meteors at their peak.