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If you're planning to spend the overnight hours attempting to catch a view of tonight's peak of the 2020 Perseid meteor shower, your local sky conditions will play a deciding role in what you see. Will any "shooting stars" be visible? Or will this year's Perseids performance be obscured by a curtain of clouds?
Generally speaking, the western and southern parts of the United States will have the best viewing options, while the weather across the central and eastern states will be far more problematic.You can also watch the Perseid meteor shower live online, with at least four different webcasts to choose from.
The meteor shower will peak overnight tonight from late Tuesday to early Wednesday (Aug. 11-12), with webcasts running through late Wednesday.
Meteor shower weather
Across northern New England, much of New York State and Pennsylvania, west through the lower Ohio Valley and parts of the Midwest and central Plains states, a frontal line will serve as the catalyst for cloudiness as well as widely scattered showers and thunderstorms. While the precipitation threat will likely diminish after sundown in most places, there may still be a few showers that will linger into the late-night hours, along with scattered to broken (50-75%) cloud cover, offering only a "fair chance" of getting a view of the Perseids.
Quite possibly, the region where clouds might cover 75 to 100% of the sky and thus offering poor prospects for meteor watchers will be over the Central Region of Upstate New York including the Leatherstocking region, so named for the unique leather leggings worn by frontiersmen, and made famous by the work of author James Fenimore Cooper.
Over much of Florida, widespread shower and thunderstorm activity is expected through the afternoon and evening hours, in response to plentiful moisture and atmospheric instability and a series of weak disturbances passing through. Locally heavy rain and strong to severe storms seem likely. Admittedly later at night, most of the showery/stormy weather should have ended, but clouds could linger, hindering the view for meteor watchers.
And not every place out west will have problem-free weather.
Parts of northern Nevada and northern Utah will be dealing with a zone of confluence — the boundary in the mid-levels of the atmosphere between two differing airmasses that could produce quite a bit of cloud cover and "dry" thunderstorms (storms that produce little or no moisture). And all along the immediate Pacific coast from Washington state to southern California, a local marine layer could translate into low cloud cover. But just a short drive a little way inland from the coast should provide mainly clear skies.
If we didn't mention your part of the country above, your local sky forecast should rate good to excellent with no worse than partly cloudy to clear skies (check out our map). Some of the best states for Perseid viewing tonight will be Arizona, New Mexico, Louisiana, Wisconsin, as well as most of the big states of Montana and Texas.
To get the latest updated forecast for your area, click here to access the National Weather Service Forecast Offices across all 50 states, including Puerto Rico and islands in the Pacific.
That darn moon!
Another problem concerning this year's Perseid shower is the moon, which will be at last quarter phase and will rise shortly after midnight to create unwanted brightness with its light; that will likely squelch some of the fainter meteor streaks.
Normally, a single observer watching from a site far from any bright lights or many obstructions such as buildings or trees would count 60 to 90 meteors per hour between midnight and the first light of dawn. So how does the moon play into this year's Perseid display?
We did a check of Perseid years when the moon was at a similar phase and its ambient light similarly objectionable. Meteor rates generally on the order of around 30 per hour. So, expect that after the moon makes its (unwelcome) appearance during the wee hours of the morning, that Perseids will be appearing at roughly one-half to one-third of their normal hourly rate — if you're watching from a dark viewing site.
Of course, if you're looking from a suburban or city location, you should expect much lower numbers. We here at Space.com often wince when we see an article or hear a radio or television news report promising "up to 90 meteors per hour" for the peak of the Perseid shower without mentioning any disclaimers regarding moonlight or bright city lights. Then we hear from people the following day complaining that the Perseids were a bust.
They weren't. It's just a matter of making proper preparations and knowing what to expect from your viewing site. City lights and light pollution can seriously impact the number of meteors you can see in the sky.
How to view and anticipating a fireball
If you're planning to make a night of it, the best equipment you can bring is either a reclining lawn chair or a sleeping bag or blanket spread out on the ground. Don't concentrate on any one part of the sky, but just keep looking all around, keeping in mind that the lion's share of meteors will be darting from out of the northeast, where the constellation Perseus will be (hence the name "Perseids").
Of course, so far as the Perseids are concerned, it is not so much the quantity as is the quality of meteors. The Perseids have a reputation for occasionally producing outstandingly bright fireball meteors capable of rivaling Jupiter and Venus in brightness and leaving an incandescent vapor trail in its wake lasting several seconds or more.
Sometimes a fireball will end its brief flight by silently exploding with a burst resembling the pop of a flashbulb or strobe. Such meteors admittedly are usually few and far between, but if you're lucky enough to sight even just one of these, it will make your night under the stars all the more worthwhile.
Good luck and clear skies!
Editor's note: If you snap an amazing photo of the 2020 Perseids meteor shower and would like to share them for a story or photo gallery, send images and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.