It's early August, which means the annual Perseid meteor shower is active, and it's ready to peak. The Perseids are one of the best, brightest batches of shooting stars, and it feels like we could use them now more than ever to add a little wonder and distraction into these pretty dismal times we're living through.
This famous shower comes around this time every year as the Earth drifts through a debris cloud left behind by the giant comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Bits of dust, pebbles and other cosmic detritus slam into our atmosphere, burning up into brief, bright streaks and even the occasional full-blown fireball streaking across the night sky.
In 2020, the Perseids are expected to peak on Aug. 11 and 12, when the moon should be a little less than half full.
The popularity of the shower is a combination of the fact that it's one of the strongest, with up to 100 visible meteors per hour on average, and it's coinciding with warm summer nights in the northern hemisphere. The waning moon is likely to wash out many otherwise visible meteors, but that still leaves plenty that should be easy to see if you do a little planning.
In general, a good strategy is to head out to look for the Perseids as late in the evening as possible, but still before moonrise at your location. So in New York, for example, you'd want to be as far away from all that light pollution as possible by about 11 p.m. on Tuesday evening (the peak night) because the moon will rise about an hour later at 12:08 a.m. on Wednesday. (You can look up sunset and moonrise for your location with a site like TimeandDate.com.)
You can also try to block out the moon by situating yourself next to a building, tree or something else that keeps some of that moonlight out of your retinas.
The moon will begin to totally disappear after mid-month, and although the Perseids will be past their prime, they will still be active and visible. This shower at half-peak with totally dark skies could be about the same as full peak with a bright moon, so don't think you must go out on the peak night to catch it.
Once you've decided on the perfect time and a place with minimal light interference and a wide view of the sky, just lie back, let your eyes adjust and relax. Pillows, blankets, lounge chairs and refreshments make for the ideal experience. It can take about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark, so be sure to be patient. If you follow all my advice, you're all but guaranteed to see a meteor.
It doesn't really matter where in the sky you look, so long as you have a broad view. That said, the Perseids will appear to radiate out from the constellation of Perseus, the Hero. If you want to practice to be an advanced meteor spotter, locate Perseus and try focusing there while you watch. Then try just looking up without focusing anywhere. See if you notice a difference. We're still dealing with the unpredictability of nature, so results will vary.