The Perseid meteor shower is arguably the most well-known meteor shower of the year. In fact, John Denver’s hit “Rocky Mountain High” includes a reference to his fascination with watching the Perseid meteors from the mountains of Colorado. The song includes the line: “I’ve seen it raining fire from the sky.” I remember going camping in the Uinta mountains with my family as a child every year to see the meteor shower. I have continued that tradition with my own children, going to Mirror Lake every August to see them.
For 2009, the peak of the Perseid shower occurs at noon, MDT, on Wednesday, August 12th; meaning that the best time to look for Perseid meteors is the early morning, pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, the 12th or Thursday, the 13th. At peak, 90 meteors per hour are anticipated, better than 1 per minute.
You don’t need any special equipment to watch meteors–no binoculars, no telescope. It’s best to find a dark location, like up in the mountains or out in the desert, with a wide open view of as much of the sky as possible. The best time of the night to view meteors is in the pre-dawn hours, when your specific location on Earth is turning into the cometary debris path from which the meteors originate.
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet, and the dust, dirt and pebbles from the comet collide with Earth. The Perseids come from comet Swift-Tuttle, which passed by the Sun last in 1992 and won’t return again for another 120+ years.
The name Perseids comes from the constellation of Perseus. Although the familiar streak of light associated with a meteor can be seen in any part of the sky, if you trace the meteor trail backwards, you will find that all Perseid meteors will trace back to a point in the constellation of Perseus. This point is called the radiant of the shower. The Perseid radiant is circumpolar for Utah observers, meaning that it is so close to the North Star that it does not rise or set. However, for the shower, the radiant is closest to the northern horizon at around 8 pm.
There is one downside to the 2009 shower–the Moon. 3rd Quarter Moon is on the 13th, so a fairly bright moon will hinder seeing the dimmer meteors in those post-midnight, pre-dawn hours. Nevertheless, the summer air is warm, and from a good, dark sky location, you will not be disappointed in viewing the Perseids.