The period between August 11th -13th will mark peak activity for the annual Perseid meteor shower. Like all annual meteor showers the Perseids occurs due to the Earth ploughing through the fine debris left behind by a short period comet, in this case Comet Swift-Tuttle. Rates of shooting stars could be as high as 60-70 per hour at peak although this figure is under the most favourable of conditions and you’ll likely see less.
This year’s Perseids looks set to be the best shower of the year due to favourable Moon conditions. A thin crescent Moon will set before the shower gets properly underway providing excellent sky conditions if you’re sufficiently away from urban lighting and (of course) have clear skies.
Even if you don’t see any shooting stars you can always look out for Saturn and Mars in the south, both setting between 2 – 4am in the morning, and appreciate the increasing number of stars popping into view as our subarctic skies gradually darken.
The radiant for the shower is within the constellation Perseus the hero, although you don’t need to look in this direction to see them. In fact some of the longest fireballs and streaks caught on camera will be picked up looking away from the radiant.
Due to the brightness of skies this far north you’ll want to wait for the Sun to dip as far below the horizon as possible to achieve the most favourable darkness, this means you’ll want to observe as late as possible, ideally close to or after midnight if you can.
Shooting stars and meteor showers are one and the same phenomena – fine lumps of material impacting the earth’s atmosphere about 40-60 miles overhead. These tiny pieces of debris are travelling so fast they superheat when entering the atmosphere and burn up rapidly. Occasionally a larger piece will impact resembling a spectacular fireball.
Observing Meteor Showers
You don’t need any special equipment to view a meteor shower, in fact binoculars or telescopes will just narrow your field of view. Grab a deck chair or a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink, wrap up warm and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone or if you have children they’ll love an excuse to get outside for some after dark play.
Put away any lights or bright mobile phones and simply look up and wait. Remember it takes up to 30 minutes for your eyes to fully dark adapt and any exposure to bright lights will start the process all over again. If you need a light red touches are best for preserving your night vision.