2021 Perseids Meteor Shower

A bright meteor captured by Chris Cogan from his home in Sutherland, Scottish Highlands

The 2021 Perseids meteor shower is now underway with peak activity predicted in the early morning of August 11th, 12th and 13th.

The best times to view the shower will be close to and 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.

This year a thin crescent Moon won’t impact the shower and will have set in the west before proper darkness sets in.  Look out for Jupiter and Saturn burning brightly on the southern horizon as you wait for shooting stars.

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 and lay out under the darkest conditions you can find, preferably away from urban light pollution. 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 close to midnight 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 take 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 sky!

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.

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!

Night Shining Clouds

Lots of wonderful Night Shining Clouds sighted up in the Highlands of Scotland recently. These Polar Mesospheric Clouds are over 50 miles overhead and are lit by the Sun grazing below the northern horizon during mid summer. You need to be between about 50 and 65 degrees north or south of the equator to see them.

Noctilucent Clouds

Night Shining Clouds

I hope you enjoy this video podcast on Noctilucent Clouds – a wonderful summer phenomena you can see late at night or in the wee hours of the morning.

Joining me to discuss once again is Steve Owens, astronomer at Glasgow Science Centre and author of Stargazing For Dummies.

The video includes many community photographs shared to my Facebook page.

My thanks to:

Kevin Williamson, Emma Rennie, Chris Cogan, Louise Carle, Eric Walker, Dave Davidson, Gwen Tynan, Al Sutherland and Michelle Cummings.

Mercury and Maximum Elongation

I hope you enjoy this short video about the planet Mercury, which you can currently see during late evening, low on the NW horizon. Mercury is also approaching its maximum evening elongation on the 17th May.

Joining me once again is Steve Owens, astronomer at Glasgow Science Centre and author of Stargazing For Dummies.

In this video podcast we discuss:

1. Tips for observing Mercury safely.

2. Mercury’s phases.

3. The surface geology of Mercury and how this reveals tantalising hints about its history and formation.

The End of Night

Stargazing is winding down for the year in the far north of Scotland. Today is the last day with official ‘night’ this far north at 57 degrees latitude (Inverness). Between 1.00am and 1.27am tonight you can experience just over 20 mins of night. By tomorrow this will be gone, replaced by astronomical twilight. And by mid May we’ll have lost our astronomical twilight as well.

Orkney and Shetland have already lost all night and are rapidly running out of astronomical twilight.

The further south you live, however, the more darkness you still hold on to. Around Glasgow and Edinburgh you still have 2 hours 30 mins of night (currently from midnight until 2.27am). And at London latitudes you still have a whopping 4 hours and 20 minutes. (from 10.50pm until 3.10am).

As we head into the summer days I’ll be shifting the focus of the page towards the Sun, Moon, bright planets, noctilucent clouds and the near midnight Sun phenomena we experience during the long days from May until August.

Here’s hoping for lots of clear and sunny skies.

Picture: Sunset over Ben Wyvis from the Bunchrew shoreline.

*Night is defied as the Sun sitting 18 degrees below the horizon (see accompanying picture from timeanddate)

Stargazing Experience at The Torrdion

My Stargazing Experience at The Torridon will be starting up again from October 2021 with bookings now open.

The Torridon is a location with exceptional darkness in the remote western Highlands of Scotland. You can see a preview of my stargazing experience on the BBC’s Amazing Hotels. Near the end I take Giles and Monica out for an excursion under the stars.

Fingers crossed both my community based stargazing programmes will be up and running again by October (at Abriachan Forest and the Merkinch Nature Reserve).

Stargazing Guide to April Skies

This took way more time than I anticipated to edit but it was great fun putting together with my friend Steve Owens. I hope you enjoy this more conversational style look at the stars.

It’s a good 30 minutes long so best grab yourself a brew or beverage of choice and get comfortable for this one.

Discussions in this episode include:

1. A farewell look at Orion and nearby stars and clusters

2. The crescent Moon in mid April

3. Planet Mars

4. Leo and the double star Algeiba

5. Northern skies and Polaris

6. The M81 and M82 galaxies

Happy April skywatching and stargazing!