Crescent moon makes meteor viewing nearly perfect
Perseid meteor showers best seen Saturday, Sunday nights
Six tips from EarthSky.org
1 - Look for an “earth grazer,” a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor traveling horizontally across the sky.
2 - Make yourself comfortable with a blanket or sleeping bag and give yourself at least an hour of observation time.
3 - Watch with friends, facing in different directions.
4 - Notice speed and colors.
5 - Look for meteor trains, a persistent glow in the air left by some meteors after they have faded from view.
6 - Embrace the night. Camp out and make a night of it.
The Perseid meteor shower this weekend takes place on nights when the moon is in the new or crescent phase, with about 1 percent of the lit moon surface showing on Saturday, Aug. 11, and 2 percent on Sunday, Aug. 12.
The moon will set before midnight, creating a dark sky with midnight to 4 a.m. being the best time to watch, said John Carter, vice president of the Prescott Astronomy Club.
The club has no star party planned because of the lateness of the shower. Carter suggests Prescott residents drive outside of the city to avoid city lights.
“Take a warm blanket and reclining chair, lie back and watch the meteors go by,” he said. “One every minute on average will provide 60 meteors per hour, which is a high rate. The biggest advantage is to watch for one or two big ones during the hour, and that is what the show is all about.”
Carter lives in Paulden where his neighbors have no outside lights that would interfere with his viewing. He suggests people drive out Williamson Valley or White Spar roads and park off the road. About seven or eight miles to the south of Prescott along Senator Highway is another area where one might hang out at the side of the road and also be at a higher elevation than the city, he said.
“Dress warmly. When you’re sitting doing absolutely nothing, it gets chilly. Plan for at least two hours after 11 p.m.,” he said.
While Carter’s eyes acclimate to the dark sky in 10 minutes, some people will need 30 minutes. If a light is needed to shine on a pathway, for example, he said a red light works best. Shining a white light in the dark takes away one’s night vision.
Space.com website states that the Perseid meteors appear to radiate out of the constellation Perseus, which is where they get their name. Pieces of comet debris heat up as they enter the atmosphere, the website reports, and burn up in a bright burst of light, streaking across the sky at 37 miles per second. In space, the pieces of debris are called “meteoroids.” When they reach Earth’s atmosphere, they are designated “meteors.” If a piece reaches the Earth without burning up, it is called a “meteorite.”
“The meteors never come from the same direction. They will crisscross across the sky,” Carter said. “If you look at where they are supposed to come, they will zip by behind you.”
He has several free apps on his phone that give up-to-date information on astronomy-related events and facts. Some favorites are “planetarium,” “stellarium,” “skywalk” and “skysafari.”
Skywalk indicates the center of the Perseids shower appearing almost due north and low on the horizon until about midnight, at which time it starts rising in the sky. From then until about 4 a.m., when the sky begins to lighten, is the best time for viewing.
“That doesn’t mean you won’t see something after dark,” Carter said. “The sun’s got to be down; it’s got to be dark. And you can see stuff entering the atmosphere in a southern direction, not just northern.”
One other piece of advice for night sky watchers: don’t be frightened if wildlife appears nearby. “A skunk will come by right by your legs and walk on by. They are alerted by movement, so let it walk on by.”
He also suggests bringing a metal pot with a spoon for other animals. “Just beat it wildly. That will scare them away.”