The Perseids are coming! The Perseids are coming! I’m sure you’re already hearing the cry around the world… But what will be the best place to watch and when will be the best date to see the most “shooting stars”? Follow along and let’s find out…
The Perseid meteor shower has a wonderful and somewhat grisly history. Often referred to as the “Tears of St. Lawrence” this annual shower coincidentally occurs roughly about the same date as the saint’s death is commemorated on August 10. While scientifically we know the appearance of the shooting stars are the by-products of comet Swift-Tuttle, our somewhat more superstitious ancestors viewed them as the tears of a martyred man who was burned for his beliefs. Who couldn’t appreciate a fellow who had the candor to quip “I am already roasted on one side and, if thou wouldst have me well-cooked, it is time to turn me on the other.” while being roasted alive? If nothing else but save for that very quote, I’ll tip a wave to St. Lawrence at the sight of a Perseid!
While the fall rate – the number of meteors seen per hour – of the Perseids has declined in recent years since Swift-Tuttle’s 1992 return, the time to begin your Perseid watch is now. While the peak of activity will not occur until August 12 at approximately 11:00 GMT, this will leave many observers in daylight. For those who wish only to observe during the predicted maximum rate, the place to be is western North America and the time is around 4:00 a.m. However, let’s assume that not all of us can be in that place and be up at that time… So let’s take a more practical look at observing the Perseid Meteor Shower.
For about the last week or so, I’ve noticed random activity has picked up sharply and traceable Perseid activity begins about midnight no matter where you live. Because we are also contending with a Moon which will interfere with fainter meteors, the later you can wait to observe, the better. The general direction to face will be east around midnight and the activity will move overhead as the night continues. While waiting for midnight or later to begin isn’t a pleasant prospect, by then the Moon has gone far west and we are looking more nearly face-on into the direction of the Earth’s motion as it orbits the Sun, and the radiant – the constellation of the meteor shower origin – is also showing well. For those of you who prefer not to stay up late? Try getting up early instead!
How many can you expect to see? A very average and cautiously stated fall rate for this year’s Perseids would be about 30 per hour, but remember – this is a collective estimate. It doesn’t mean that you’ll see one every two minutes, but rather you may see four or five in quick succession with a long period of inactivity in between. You can make your observing sessions far more pleasant by planning for inactive times in advance. Bring a radio along, a thermos of your favorite beverage, and a comfortable place to observe from. The further you can get away from city lights, the better your chances will be.
Will this 2000 year-old meteor shower be a sparkling success or a total dud? You’ll never know unless you go out and try yourself. I’ve enjoyed clear skies here for the last week and without even trying caught at least 15 per hour each night I’ve gone out. One thing we do know is the Perseids are one of the most predictable of all meteor showers and even an hour or so of watching should bring a happy reward!
Wishing you clear skies and good luck…