BY AMY SAYLE
As long as the weather cooperates, this is a particularly good year for the Perseid meteors. This annual meteor shower is already happening and is predicted to peak the night of August 12-13, 2015 (Wednesday evening into Thursday pre-dawn).
Unlike last year, there won’t be bright moonlight to wash out the dimmer meteors from view. Also, for those of us in North America, the shower’s exact peak coincides with the best hours to view meteors – between late evening and dawn.
The Perseid meteor shower is named after the constellation Perseus, which is the direction of the sky from which the meteors appear to radiate. This image from Stellarium shows the location of Perseus above the northeastern horizon shortly before dawn on August 13, although you don’t need to know how to identify Perseus to see the meteors.
But if you’d like to learn about the constellation Perseus -- and view the Perseids -- with Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, please join us for a skywatching session at Jordan Lake on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2015. This is a weather-permitting event, so check the Morehead website before you head out to make sure there’s not a cancellation notice.
Assuming the weather forecast cooperates, we’ll be at Jordan Lake’s Ebenezer Church Recreation Area from 9 to 11 p.m. that Wednesday evening to view the Perseids. The meteors, also misleadingly known as “shooting stars,” are streaks of light you see in the sky when bits of cosmic debris interact with Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the Perseids, the debris has been left in Earth’s path by Comet Swift-Tuttle.
You don’t need (or want) a telescope to see meteors, but telescopes will be provided at the skywatching session so you can view the rings of Saturn and other celestial wonders.
While you’re on the stargazing field, listen up for announcements of constellation tours. Over the two hours of the skywatching session, we plan to hold two or three of these 15- to 20-minute tours of the sky.
Prefer to view the Perseids on your own? Some tips:
- Identify a good site. Find a safe place away from city lights with an open view of the sky. Watching from your backyard? Turn off your house lights, and get any poorly designed (unshielded) streetlights out of your field of view.
- Select a time. The Perseids are already happening, so you can try on the next clear night. The meteor watching should be especially good for several nights surrounding the peak night of August 12-13, 2015.
Are you determined to see the most meteors? Go out early Thursday morning, August 13, 2015, between midnight and the first light of dawn (~5 a.m. for those of you in the Triangle area of North Carolina). In clear, dark skies, expect to see up to an average of a meteor per minute. Urban stargazers will see fewer.
Are those early morning hours are too painful for you? They are for us, too. That’s why Morehead’s skywatching session at Jordan Lake is scheduled for Wednesday evening, August 12. But if you go out then, not only can you still expect to see some meteors, you may get to see a dramatic “Earth-grazing” meteor that makes a long path across the sky.
- Check the weather forecast. You won’t see meteors in an overcast sky.
- Dress warmly. When you’re not moving around, it can feel chilly at night any time of year. Bring layers. They’ll protect you from insects, too.
- Take a blanket, sleeping bag, or reclining chair. Standing and craning your neck to peer up at the sky gets uncomfortable pretty fast.
- Be patient. Your eyes need time to adjust to the dark, and the meteors can appear in clumps. Resist the urge to look at your phone. Its light will instantly ruin your night vision for a number of minutes.
- Look up at the sky. This may seem unbelievably obvious, but if you’re viewing with other people, it’s easy to focus on them and forget to watch the sky for those beautiful streaks of light. As for what direction to look, choosing the darkest part of your sky is usually a good bet.
If you miss out on the Perseids, don’t despair. You have another chance later this year to see a great meteor shower—the Geminids in mid-December. Morehead is planning two skywatching sessions for that meteor shower: at Little River Regional Park on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, and at Jordan Lake on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015.