The Perseids are arguably the best and brightest annual meteor shower, and they peak this week. Here’s how to enjoy them.
It is late Summer, and any amateur astronomer will tell you to stay up late and look up, because the beautiful Perseids have returned! The annual meteor show, the result of the earth passing through a cloud of Comet Swift-Tuttle’s dusty debris, gets its name from the placement of its radiant, the apparent origin point of these shooting stars.
After about Midnight each night this week, the constellation Perseus clears the northeastern horizon and the show is on full-blast, peaking this year in the wee hours of Thursday, August 13. As it takes some time for the earth to pass through the cometary refuse, Perseids can be spotted from late July into late August, but this week offers the maximum rate of just under two a minute from dark locations.
Finding its namesake constellation is easy. This time of year, the more recognizable Big Dipper, the seven brightest stars in Ursa Major, are creeping towards the northwestern horizon, and its celestial polar opposite, Cassiopeia, is climbing higher in the northeast. The five brightest stars in Cassiopeia form a clear zig-zag, and right beneath it, at least from our perspective, rises Perseus:
Getting Out There
Finding a dark sky spot isn’t as tough as you might think: the Milky Way, though washed out by bright city lights and suburban sprawl, shines in all fifty states. First, check your local astronomy club for dark sky locales. Some will team up with county and state parks for meteor shower viewings, and with a new moon on Friday, dark skies will assure many of these events this week.
Another great resource is the International Dark Sky Association’s Dark Sky Places, which feature communities, parks and reserves in over a dozen states. Of course, you can always use DarkSiteFinder, hit the gas, and head for a yellow-green spot on the map, if you are feeling more adventurous.
Enjoy your Family and Friends
The best shower I remember involved my wife and her friends. It was rather impromptu: one of them had a house near Joshua Tree National Park, so we dragged lawn chairs, blankets, and a few six packs out for a fantastic night. The sky itself was wondrous: a simple pair of binoculars, passed around, will reveal countless gems in the Milky Way that stretches from one end of the late Summer sky to the other.
My wife isn’t as interested in astronomy as I am, but the occasional fireball (a feature of the Perseids) and the attempt to “outspot” them made for a great evening. When our son gets a little older, we intend to start a new family tradition for early August- a late night trip to the desert or mountain where we can all enjoy the chaotic beauty of the universe.
The fun in the meteor shower isn’t the meteors, it is the car trip, the late night “deep thoughts” many of us outside of a smokey college dorm don’t really experience, and most importantly, the time we can spend under a timeless sky with those we care about.
Enjoy The Peace Yourself
Of course, if throwing the kids in the car or trying to coordinate a trip with your goofy neighbors may be too much, there is still definitely a wonderful moment to enjoy under the vaporization of space dust.
Frustrated? Stressed? Take the drive, climb onto your roof, and just take it all in. Watch the earth’s rotation pull a wonderful illusion as thousands of suns slowly move about, and the ashy remnants of their formation silently ignite above you.