Creative Commons photo by reonides is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The possibility of seeing a rare fireball enter the atmosphere is a good reason to stay up late this week.

Nicole Clausing  –  Updated August 26, 2020

One night a few years ago, I was taking out the garbage when a streak of light in the sky caught my eye. It was like a Roman candle, but strangely silent, and headed toward the Earth, not up. It was visible for several seconds, and then it winked out without making a sound. Unsettled—I was a little bit afraid I’d just witnessed a small plane breaking up; it was that bright—I headed back toward the house. Before I was inside, I felt a vibration through the soles of my shoes, and heard a low rumble. “First strange flares,” I thought, “And now we’re having an earthquake, too?”

An anxious hour or so later, news reports starting clearing up the mystery. What I and much of the Bay Area had seen was an extra-large meteor—perhaps the size of a car—getting closer to the surface of the Earth than most meteors do. The sound was a sonic boom made by the big rock hurtling through the air at about 1,000 mph before disintegrating harmlessly.

Why am I telling you this? Because a fireball like this is an awesome sight, and I don’t want you to greet it with fear like I did. Why am I telling you this now? Because there’s a very real chance that you might get to see a fireball of your own this week, as part of the Perseid meteor shower peaking on the night of August 11-12.

More Videos From Sunset

The annual Perseids are generally regarded as the best meteor shower of the year because they not only produce a large number of meteors—as many as one a minute at its peak—but are also famous for producing the occasional dramatic fireball like the one I saw.  

How and When to Watch

How do you get to see one? The basic instructions for enjoying a meteor shower are simple: Look up. Don’t bother with binoculars or a telescope. They’ll just restrict your field of view too much. Your chances get better the more sky you can see, so try to find a large clearing, whether that’s an urban greenspace, a parking lot, or a beach. The darker your skies, the better, although there will be fairly bright moon this week, so there’s no point in exhausting yourself driving too far out of town. Meteor activity ramps up after midnight. The most intense period of the Perseids will occur in the pre-dawn hours of August 12, so if you’re prepared to sacrifice sleep, make it that night.

But if you’re not a night owl, or the weather doesn’t cooperate, don’t worry. The Perseid meteor shower peaks Wednesday morning, but it has been producing an above-average number of meteors each night since mid July, and will continue to do so until the last week of August. So now is a golden time to spend some time looking at the night sky.

Keeping an Eye on the Western Sky

How excited am I about this meteor shower? Excited enough to make a go of staying up into the wee hours on a weeknight. Excited enough to share the news of it with you. And in fact, excited enough to be inspired to start sharing stargazing tidbits with you on a weekly basis. Noisy Volkswagen-size rocks don’t rain down on Earth every week, but there’s always going to be something to see in the night sky, even if you live in a light-polluted urban area. I aim to help you find some of these overlooked beauties. I won’t usually make you stay up too late, and I promise you won’t need any expensive equipment. I’m no professional astronomer. I’m just an enthusiast who, like many of you, misses being able to share experiences with a group of people. So please join me virtually in this big back yard we call the West as we go exploring. 

(Will the Earth move every time? No promises. But you’ll get out of the house and might even see something you’ve never seen before. These days, that feels like a win.)

Read our 2021 “Waters of the West” Issue Right Here!

Get one year of Sunset—and all kinds of bonuses—for just $24.95.