One of the year’s most active meteor showers, the Perseids, will peak overnight Sunday into Monday, with 60 to 70 meteors per hour. They aren’t visible to most of Australia – only those lucky people on the northern end of Brisbane and above will get the opportunity to glimpse them.
But even so, a lot of Gizmodo readers live in cities. So I wondered — will city dwellers see the meteor shower?
The short answer is, if you find a dark spot away from the streetlights and get your eyes adjusted, weather permitting, you might be able to see some. The show gets better further from the lights.
First off, the Perseids are an annual meteor shower caused by dust, left over from the 109P/Swift-Tuttle comet, streaking through the atmosphere. The name comes from fact that the meteors appear to shoot out from the Perseus constellation.
The shower is known for its large quantity of meteors, including the possibility of bright fireballs. It’s best seen in dark skies after 10PM, with more meteors closer to dawn.
So how dark should the sky be?
One paper from 1956 found that many of the meteors were brighter than a magnitude of five, and many brighter than a magnitude of three.
If that’s accurate, it means that if you can see the stars of the Big Dipper, you should be able to see many of the Perseid meteors, astronomer Steven Bellavia from Brookhaven National Laboratory told Gizmodo. Australians are more likely to be on the lookout for the Southern Cross, but the same principle applies.
But meteor magnitudes work a little differently from star magnitudes, University of Chicago astronomy professor Leslie Rogers told Gizmodo, since the meteors also have streaks. Bright city lights might still obscure some of the more interesting parts of the show.
But if you just look up while you’re walking on the footpath, you still probably won’t see them.
“Even if the sky is dark enough, if you are exposed to any bright light nearby, your eyes will not be dark-adapted,” said Bellavia. If you’re out looking for meteors in the city, it’s worth finding the darkest spot you can, far from streetlights, and getting your eyes used to the dark for a half hour or so.
Even if you find ideal urban viewing conditions, there are a lot of other factors that can affect whether you see meteors, including whether the sky is clear and the properties of meteors themselves. Speaking from experience, I used to watch the show as a kid living about 1.5km from New York’s JFK airport, and I generally saw a handful of meteors from my backyard with all the house lights turned off.
If you’re willing to travel, you can also seek out a darker sky for a truly spectacular show.