Best Meteor Shower in the Northern Hemisphere
One of the highlights of the August night sky is the Perseid Meteor shower. For the Northern Hemisphere, it is a fantastic combination of warm summer nights and one of the highest rates of “shooting stars” of any annual shower. All you need is dark skies and a look at the weather forecast to make this a fun and memorable trip under the stars.
With any meteor shower, the key is to have dark skies. Both light pollution and humidity will decrease your ability to see the meteors. The Perseids tend to produce a large number of bright flashes with long tails, so if you can see stars from your location, you will have a chance at seeing something. The darker your location the better your ability to spot fainter (and more) meteors. The more stars you see, the more shooting stars you will see. It is that simple. Other factors that can affect the visibility include clouds and atmospheric haze that develops on warm, humid nights. And of course, whether or not the moon is up.
This year, on the night of August 11/12 the moon will be a little less than a “half-moon” which is technically called a waning quarter moon and will rise around midnight. The good news is that any viewing you do before moonrise will be under skies with little light interference from Earth’s satellite. However, the bad news is that the moon will be up for the best viewing hours in the predawn sky. It is a tradeoff, but it isn’t a show stopper. As the radiant rises, along with the moon, it will bring into play more material to strike the atmosphere where you can see it. What we lose in faint meteors due to the moonlight, we will gain back by a higher hourly rate of shooting stars.
The way a meteor shower works is all about geometry and how much space junk the earth is traveling through. Comets periodically sweep into the inner solar system from the frigid outer fringes. People often visualize the solar system as having planets, asteroids, comets, and anything else out there orbiting the sun all on the same plane. In reality, while the planets are roughly on the same “level”, comets come in from all angles. As they pass through, they leave a trail of dust in their wake that continues on its own orbit. The Perseids are caused by the dust trail left by comet Swift-Tuttle which last passed by our neighborhood in the early ‘90s on its 133-year loop around the sun.
As the Earth (or any other planet for that matter) orbits and crosses through a stream of dust, a meteor “shower” is created. On a normal dark night, a person should reasonably be able to see anywhere from three to ten “sporadic” meteors. These are caused by random particles that hit the atmosphere and come from all directions. An observer would not see any pattern. A shower has two differences. First, if you trace the meteors’ trails back through the sky, would look like they are converging on a particular area, or the “radiant”. This effect is caused by the material all originating from the same area in space and the observers view rotating with Earth’s orbit to face into this pocket of comet debris. The second quality of a meteor shower is that the rate of meteors climbs significantly over the hourly sporadic rate. With the Perseids, under dark skies, rates will typically be around 60 – 100 meteors per hour. Of course, that’s over the whole sky, and the human eye can’t see it all. For a normal person, scanning the skies, around 30 per hour is a good target. It is possible for the Earth to pass through a denser clump of material which will skyrocket the hourly rate by a factor of two to three.
Remember that as the night air cools, it will likely become damp. For those who plan to go out and stay out for hours, bring a blanket and comfortable chair. Laying on the ground in a sleeping bag or bringing a lounge chair is a good way to go as well. While the radiant is located in the constellation of Perseus (hence the name Perseids), don’t focus only on the sky to the northeast. Keep your eyes moving and try to take in as much of the sky as you can. Some meteors will occur directly in your line of sight, others will be caught by the corner of your eye. Also, avoid looking into white and blue lights, like a cell phone. This will destroy your (and other’s) night vision and can take a half-hour to recover. If you must look at your phone, download a red light app, as red light is much safer for night vision.
2020 has been a crazy year. There have been riots, marches, and a nasty virus. Many of those who have kids are probably wondering what to do with them as the summer slowly winds down. This is an opportunity to slow things down and make some great family memories. Sitting under the stars, sharing stories, and simply being together and present for those few hours is priceless time that will be cherished. If the sky looks to be clear and dark, this is the easiest and most comfortable time of the year to see some shooting stars.
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