Where Is Perseus in the Night Sky and Which Direction to Look for Perseid Meteor Shower?

The Perseid meteor shower—one of the most spectacular astronomical events of the year—peaks tonight.

Meteor showers are celestial events in which several meteors, colloquially known as "shooting stars," can be seen in the night sky, all appearing to originate from a single point known as the "radiant." In the case of the Perseids, the radiant lies in the constellation Perseus in the northern sky.

On the peak night, Perseus—named after the son of the god Zeus and the mortal Danaë in ancient Greek mythology—can be found above the northeastern horizon as the evening twilight fades.

During the evening hours, the radiant will be located low in the sky, meaning much of the activity will occur below your line of sight, according to the American Meteor Society (AMS.) However, any meteors that do appear during this period will be "earthgrazers," characterized by spectacularly long streaks of light.

These earthgrazers skim along the top of the atmosphere, lasting much longer than the meteors that can be seen during morning hours.

Meteors are the steaks of light we see when small pieces of space debris—sometimes equivalent in size to a grain of sand—burn up in the Earth's atmosphere while traveling at speeds of around 130,000 miles per hour.

The debris that produces the Perseids comes from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which is in a 133-year-long orbit around the sun. Every year during the Northern Hemisphere summer, Earth passes through the debris field left behind by this comet.

On August 11, Perseus will rise higher in the northeast as the night progresses. Technically the higher the radiant is in the sky, the more meteors you will be able to see. In fact, the radiant will be highest in the dark sky just before dawn.

However, the last quarter moon will also rise around midnight, meaning fainter meteors will become harder to see as a result of the sunlight being reflected off our natural satellite.

"The Perseids are a major meteor shower and one of the best and most reliable of the year," Rick Fienberg, a spokesperson for the American Astronomical Society, previously told Newsweek.

meteors
Multiple exposure composite image of meteors in the sky on July 25, 2020 in Sad Hill, Contreras, Spain. Samuel de Roman / Getty Images

"The good news is that the moon won't interfere with evening meteor-watching. The bad news is that the best hours for meteor-watching are the hours between midnight and dawn, because then you're on the side of Earth facing 'into the wind,' that is, facing our direction of orbital motion, which means the meteors hit the atmosphere faster and often shine brighter."

While all Perseids can be traced back to the Perseus constellation, you don't necessarily need to look in this direction to see them as the meteors will fly across all portions of the sky over the course of the night.

"These 'shooting stars' can appear anywhere and everywhere in the sky—you don't have to look at the radiant to see them," said Diana Hannikainen Observing Editor of Sky & Telescope. "So the best direction to watch is wherever your sky is darkest, usually straight up."

For ideal viewing, head to a dark location away from light pollution with a wide-open view of the sky if possible. This year, you may be able to see up to 50 meteors per hour at the shower's peak, EarthSky reported.

If you don't manage to catch a glimpse of the shower tonight, activity will still be strong for a few nights after. In fact, the shower will be active until August 24, although activity becomes weaker the further away you move from the peak night.