The Perseid meteors are the most popular shooting stars of the year. And in 2023 the maximum numbers will occur over the weekend of 12-13 August, near to new Moon, making this a great year for watching them from the UK. Here’s how and when and where to see them.
Update 13 August
The Perseid meteors are still active throughout August, so there’s still a chance to see them, particularly as the Moon won’t be a problem until nearly the end of August. So if you get a clear night and want to take a look, read on….
All stargazers look forward to the first couple of weeks of August, as this is when the Perseid meteors are at their best. They are caused when the Earth passes through debris from Comet Swift–Tuttle – aka the Great Comet of 1862. As the debris hits our upper atmosphere we see streaks of light which we call meteors or shooting stars. These appear to emanate from the constellation of Perseus, hence their name.
This year is particularly good for viewing them because of the lack of a bright Moon in the sky, which would drown out all but the brightest meteors. So all we need is clear skies!
Five top tips for seeing the Perseid meteors
- Look away from Perseus! Although the meteors come from the direction of Perseus, which rises in the south-eastern sky during the late evening, expert observers advise against looking in that direction. That’s because the longest and most easily seen streaks of light occur when the meteors are dashing through the sky well away from what’s called the radiant, the point in the sky they radiate from. The best directions to look are therefore to the north or east.
- Don’t look too high up. It’s best to look in about halfway up the sky rather than directly overhead. In that direction you are looking through a thicker chunk of the atmosphere, so are likely to see more meteors.
- Keep in the dark! It doesn’t matter where in the country you live but the key thing is to get away from bright lights if you can. Get out into a dark area if you can, but even if you are watching from your back garden, choose a spot where you don’t have lights shining in your eyes.
- Get comfortable. Use a sun lounger or deckchair to observe from, rather than lying flat on the ground. Because most meteors appear in mid-sky, this will help you look in the best direction. And take a blanket – even in August it can get chilly. Take a snack but stay off the alcohol – it can dull your senses and make you feel drowsy.
- Choose your time. The sky isn’t dark enough to see the meteors until about 10:30 pm. Numbers seen tend to build up until about 3:30 am, as that’s when the night side of the Earth is facing the direction from which the meteors come, and the radiant point is higher in the sky. After that it starts to get light, although sunrise isn’t until just before 6 am BST.
How many will I see?
Although the rates are quoted as being up to 120 an hour, that’s a theoretical number based on perfect conditions and for someone with a view of the whole sky. From the UK you are more likely to see an average of one a minute at the peak, but even then there can be long gaps when you don’t see anything. Keep at it as long as you can and you could see dozens over the night.
How should I observe the Perseid meteors?
The easiest way is just to lie back and enjoy the free show! But if you want to take your observing to another level, keep a notepad and a red torch handy (red light doesn’t destroy your night vision nearly as much as a white light) and make a note of each meteor you see. Keen observers also note whether it was a Perseid, coming from the direction of Perseus itself, or a sporadic meteor, which is one of the random meteors from another source that can happen at any time. They also note the approximate brightness compared with the stars. Keep a note of the time every so often so you can see how the rate varies throughout the night. There’s more on this in our comprehensive guide to observing meteors.
Photographing the Perseids
Because meteors are over, literally, in a flash, you can’t usually hope to spot one and take a photo of it while it’s still there. So the way to do it is to set up your camera on a tripod pointing up at a likely area of sky and open the shutter for a time exposure. It’s best to use a camera that you can control manually, focusing on infinity and using a high ISO number, say around 1600. In a light-polluted sky you can probably only give exposure times of around 30 seconds or so before the sky brightness drowns out any meteors, but in a country area you can probably give several minutes.
Any meteors will show up as straight streaks of light, while the stars will be short arcs. If you see a photo in a paper or TV showing lots of long circular arcs, which they say are meteors, don’t believe it! Those are just star trails.