2020 Perseids Meteor Shower

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Photo of a brilliant green meteor taken over southern India by biologist and photographer Prasenjeet Yadav.

The annual Perseids meteor shower is now underway with peak activity predicted from August 11th until August 13th.

The best times to view the shower will be after midnight when the Perseus radiant is rising higher in the East.  However, you don’t need to look at the radiant to see shooting stars as they’ll appear to come from all directions.

A waning crescent Moon will also rise during the three days of peak activity but its light shouldn’t overpower some of the brighter meteors the Perseids are known to produce.  You might also have some luck on the days after the 13th when the Moon’s influence will diminish (but overall meteor rates will be lower).

What Causes a Meteor Shower

Meteors are the fine dust and particulates left over from comets and large asteroids which stray into our solar system.  Some of these are on predictable orbits and as they whizz around the Sun they melt and shed some of this material into space.  The Earth then travels through these giant dust trails as it orbits the Sun, producing predictable meteor showers.  The Perseids are generated by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which has a 133 year orbit.

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Observing the Perseids

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 camping mat and (if it’s cold) a warm blanket, prepare a hot drink and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find. It’s an excellent activity to do alone, with family and friends, 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 phone screens 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 LEDs or touches are best for preserving you night vision.

For optimal viewing, head out late at night or in the darkness of the pre dawn sky., when the radiant is highest in the sky.

Don’t Expect Too Much

You need to be patient with meteor showers.  Sometimes you’ll see many and other times very few or none at all.  Think of it as a great excuse to get out under the stars and breath in some fresh air.  Even if you don’t see much you probably won’t regret heading out and looking up.  Very rarely meteor showers can erupt into storms, like the Leonids in 1833 when over 100,000 shooting stars criss crossed the night sky1

Photographing the Perseids

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If your have a DSLR camera and tripod, or a suitable phone app like NightCap, you could try capturing some meteors with this rough guide.

  1. Firmly attach your camera or phone to the tripod.
  2. Disable autofocus and manually focus on some bright stars (make them as small and pin point as possible in your viewing screen)
  3. Set an ISO range somewhere between 1000-3000 depending on the capabilities of the sensor.  Mid 1000s is a good middle road.
  4. Turn off noise reduction or you’ll get big delays between each shot.
  5. Point your camera at a high and clear part of the sky.
  6. Shoot long exposures ranging from 10s to 30s, or simply use a remote shutter to take long manual exposures.  Note:  don’t go crazy with very long exposures or you’ll get amp glow from the sensor.
  7. Take lots and lots of shots and be patient!

If your camera has a time-lapse feature you can automate the shooting process and tell the camera to continually shoot 30 second exposures over a long interval.  Just watch out for dew forming on the lens if conditions are cold.  Some hand warmers stuffed into a sock wrapped around the lens will solve this particular issue.

Good luck and clear skies!

The Perseids 2018

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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.

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Remember, you don’t have to look directly at the radiant to see a meteor shower, this is just the area of space they’ll originate from.

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.

Clear skies!