I love the summer ritual of heading outside and being awed by the return of the Perseid meteors in August. 2021 looks to be an especially good year. On the peak nights of Wednesday the 11th and Thursday the 12th, the crescent moon sets in the evening making the meteors easier to see in the dark skies of the Driftless. There are more meteors after midnight, but there are also plenty to see in the evening if that is a better fit for your life. The Perseids are such a mix of the predictable and the random. We know the peak nights but have no way of knowing where or when in the sky they will appear. You might see several within a minute and then go for a long stretch with none. Last year, I was wowed by dozens every hour.
It’s easy to enjoy the Perseids. Find a dark spot away from town lights and give your eyes time to adjust to the dark. Turn off your flashlights and put your phone away. Bring a blanket or air mattress or reclining chair (and snacks) so you’re comfortable. Any direction is fine so long as you are looking up. Sunset is around 8:10, and the sky is fully dark by 10. There are fewer meteors before midnight, but the ones we do see are called “earthgrazers” and move more slowly and leave longer trails. If clouds interfere on the peak nights, there are still plenty to enjoy the nights before and after. Bring some friends to spot the ones you miss.
While you’re waiting for Perseids to appear, be sure to enjoy the other sights of the August skies. A waxing crescent moon is visible in the west until it sets around 10:10 on Aug. 11 and 10:30 on Aug. 12. You should be able to spot brilliant Venus below the moon before our sister planet sets around 9:30. Jupiter and Saturn are at their brightest for the year this month and can be spotted in the southeast as they are rising and in the south around midnight. As the skies darken and your eyes adapt, you can be awed by the Milky Way streaming from Sagittarius the Archer in the south to Cassiopeia the Queen in the northeast. Sometimes I like to face that way to enjoy the Perseids streaking in front of our home galaxy.
As stargazers like to say, “Carpe noctem/seize the night.” Moonlight will interfere with the Perseids the next few summers, so enjoy the 2021 show and make some memories.
John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador, with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador, and with International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies.