CAPTION: Perseid meteors appear to originate from the direction of the sky we call Perseus. (Credit: Stellarium)
BY AMY SAYLE
The annual Perseid meteor shower is already underway and expected to peak the night of Thursday evening, August 11, into Friday morning, August 12, 2016. Here are some viewing tips:
1. What to look for. Meteors look like streaks of light across the sky. Although they are sometimes called “shooting stars” they’re actually bits of cosmic debris interacting with Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the Perseid meteor shower, the debris has been left over by Comet Swift-Tuttle. Earth runs into that debris around the same time every year as we orbit the Sun.
This year may bring an outburst of more Perseids than normal. But even with no outburst, the meteor shower will produce roughly an average of a meteor per minute for those watching under a clear dark sky in the hours before dawn on Friday, August 12.
2. When to look. First off, don’t bother if it’s cloudy. If the weather cooperates, the peak night should be August 11-12, 2016. But it’s worth trying to look any clear night the same week.
If you’re viewing Thursday evening, August 11, 2016, light from the waxing gibbous moon will wash dimmer meteors from view, but you will have the chance to see planets—and you might see a Perseid Earth grazer that’s long, slow, and colorful.
To see the most meteors, do your viewing early Friday morning, August 12, 2016, after the moon sets and before morning twilight. That translates to between about 1:30 and 5 a.m. (sorry!) PHOTO CAPTION: To see the most, meteors, go out early Friday morning, Aug. 12, 2016, after the Moon sets around 1:30 a.m. (Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio)
There’s another reason besides the moonlight that the hours just before dawn will be the best for seeing the most Perseids. That’s also when your side of Earth faces the same direction that Earth travels around the Sun. This leading side of Earth sweeps up more meteors than the trailing side. Think of it like riding in a car in a rainstorm: more raindrops hit the front windshield than hit the glass in the back. After midnight is like looking out Earth’s front windshield.
3. Where to go. Find a dark place away from unshielded lights with an open view of the sky. If the weather permits, you can join Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at our skywatching session on Thursday, August 11, 2016, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., at Jordan Lake, Ebenezer Church Recreation Area. Please carpool. Read our FAQs for helpful things to know about skywatching sessions. Admittedly, those evening hours will probably not the best time to view the most Perseids, but we’ll also have the Moon, five(!) planets, and other celestial wonders to look at through telescopes. Plus there’s always the possibility of seeing one of those dramatic Earth grazers. Come near the beginning of the skywatching session if you want to catch Venus, Mercury, and Jupiter before they set in the west.
4. What direction to look. Look toward the darkest part of your sky. The Perseids are called that because they appear to radiate away from the direction of the constellation Perseus. However, you don’t need to know how to identify Perseus to see the meteors. They can appear anywhere in the sky.
5. What to bring. A blanket, sleeping bag, or reclining chair will prevent you from having to crane your neck. An extra layer of clothing can be helpful, especially if you’re out after midnight. Even August can start to feel chilly when you’re outside for a while and not moving around.
6. What to do. Look at the sky! This may seem unbelievably obvious, but it’s really easy to miss meteors because you’re looking at someone you’re talking to. And put those electronic devices away. Lighted screens hurt your night vision, as well of that of everyone near you, making it more difficult to see meteors when you do look at the sky. Finally, be patient. It takes your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and meteors can come in clumps, so you might see none for minutes at a time.