For many skywatchers, this is “meteor month” — so named after the famed Perseid Meteor Shower that peaks each year during the second week of August. And while not normally the richest of these annual celestial fireworks displays, it’s certainly the best-known and among the most reliable of them all. The only uncertainty involved in viewing such events (aside, of course, from clear skies!) is if the presence of a bright Moon will offer interference. This time, the answer is “yes, it will” or “no, it won’t”—depending on what time of the night you go looking.
This year’s Perseid meteor display will happen on the evening of August 11th into the morning of August 12th. Normally, the shower is expected to produce as many as 100 “shooting stars” an hour at its peak as seen from a dark sky location—with about half as many visible from urban locations. However, this year rates as high as 150 are being predicted. It all has to do with the location of the meteor or debris stream from the source of the shower–Comet Swift-Tuttle, which itself orbits the Sun every 130 years.
The number of shooting stars seen will increase steadily throughout the night for a number of reasons. One is that the radiant—that point from which the meteors appear to radiate toward us—continues to rise ever higher in the sky as the evening goes on. For this shower, it’s located in the constellation Perseus, positioned very low in the northeast after darkness falls on the 11th. Using your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to first identify it, see how it rises higher and higher by setting the star-disk to later and later hours, being well up in the sky by the time dawn approaches. While peak activity will be compromised by the presence of the Last Quarter Moon after midnight, many of the Perseids are quite bright and can still put on a nice display.
There’s yet another and largely unsuspected factor at play in this and all meteor showers. During the evening hours we’re on the side of our spinning Spaceship Earth that’s essentially facing away from the direction the meteors are approaching, and so they have to “catch up” with us. But after midnight we’re turned completely toward the direction of the radiant, causing them to slam into the atmosphere at much higher speeds — resulting in many more being seen and those that are seen being brighter. So staying up late when meteor watching is always worth doing.
For optimum coverage in observing meteor showers, face toward the radiant while at the same time concentrating your attention on the sky overhead–preferably reclining comfortably on a lawn chair or heavy blanket and pillow. And while this is basically a naked-eye activity since it’s important to canvass as large an area of sky as possible, using your Scientifics’ binoculars is also encouraged for following the trails or “trains” often left behind by many of the brighter meteors. For an added thrill, point them in the direction of the radiant itself—you may be lucky enough to see a few meteors coming directly at you, suddenly appearing from out of nowhere as a brightening star!
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of 10 books on
stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.