The Perseid Meteor Shower—What Is It and How Do I View It?

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Now that the March of the Planets is winding down, I’d bet you’re wondering what astronomical wonders await us in the back half of the year. Well, wonder no more! The Perseid Meteor Shower is coming, and it’s the biggest shower of the year, hitting its peak on the night of August 12-13, 2018. 

Before we get too far, let’s take a step back and talk about what a meteor shower is. Showers occur when the earth passes through the dust stream left behind when a comet has passed through a region. In this case, the debris that produces the Perseids is from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. As Earth moves toward the dust stream, we will start seeing occasional meteors (or “shooting stars”), increasing nightly until the peak. On or around the peak night, the Perseids can produce 80-100 meteors per hour or more under ideal conditions… meaning a dark, clear sky. If you live where there is heavy light pollution, that number will be a bit less, but still pretty cool. If you want some tips on how to photograph a meteor shower like this year’s Perseids, click here.

From our perspective on Earth, it appears that the meteors come from a single point in the sky, as the dust coming from the comet is traveling in a parallel path behind it—this is called the shower radiant. At the beginning of the Perseids, in mid-July, the radiant appears to come out of the constellation Cassiopeia, and it moves through Perseus and then finally to Camelopardalis. Peak activity occurs when the shower radiant is coming out of Perseus—hence the name “Perseids.”

The biggest obstruction to viewing the shooting-star show is the moon. Luckily for us, on the night of the 12th, the moon will be in a waxing crescent phase, or the first phase after the new moon, and it will be setting shortly after the sun. In New York, that means it will be below the Western horizon before 9:00 p.m., and the night sky will be extremely dark as a result.

Viewing the Perseid meteor shower couldn’t be easier. Simply go outside after sunset and look a little to the right of dead north (use the compass app on your phone if you’re not sure where north is). Perseus will be a bit low on the horizon at first, but as the night progresses it will march higher in the sky. You can also use the “W”-shaped Cassiopeia as a guide. Find the constellation and look down and to the left and you’ll see Perseus. On the 12th, in New York, as we hit sunset, the earth will be rotating directly into the path so the rates will steadily increase through the night and peak between 10:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m.

If you have a lounge chair or chaise, set it up and lay back facing north-ish. For most of the night, I’ll probably just lie back and enjoy the show without using a binocular. I will most likely have a pair of Fujinon Polaris 16x70 Binoculars set up on this Starlight Innovation parallelogram mount supported by the Tri-Light tripod that I plan on using to watch satellites around dusk, so I’ll go to that on and off. My dad will probably be out with me and he’ll be using my Steiner Shadowquests. Leave your telescope inside for this, but any large-objective/wide-angle binocular will work great (like these), and don’t forget a tripod and a tripod adapter if you plan on being out for a long time.

The setup: Fujinon Polaris, Starlight Innovation parallelogram mount, & Tri-Light tripod
The setup: Fujinon Polaris, Starlight Innovation parallelogram mount, & Tri-Light tripod

What has been your favorite celestial event this year? From where are you planning on viewing the Perseids? Ask a question or leave a comment below!

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For comfort watching the various meteor showers, I prefer the Perseids over the Geminids. Watching the Geminids in South Carolina can be occasionally be frigid. Yea, as NASA JPL said, the mosquitos will be unwelcome guests.

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