Catch a Shooting Star

The annual Perseid meteor shower is one of the best opportunities of the year to catch a shooting star.

This celestial fireworks display is named for the constellation Perseus, the part of the sky—officially called the radiant—where the meteors appear to originate.

The real source of the phenomenon is the cloud of dust and ice left in the wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The Earth begins passing through that cloud in mid-July and exits at the end of August. As our planet moves through the cloud, particles of comet material create a spectacular display of shooting stars as they skim across Earth’s atmosphere.

Perseid meteors may be visible on any night during this time frame, but the shower peaks in mid-August. This year, the peak nights to watch for shooting stars will be August 11-12 and August 12-13, with the 12-13 projected to be the night with the highest rate of visible meteors.

Weather permitting, it should be an especially good show this year, because the shower peaks shortly after the new moon when there is less light.

During the optimal viewing times—usually after midnight until just before dawn—when the radiant is high in the sky, observers may be able see as many as 60-70 meteors per hour, although bursts of 150-200 meteors an hour are also possible, according to the NASA website. At least some meteors should be visible as early as 10 p.m., when Perseus begins to rise above the horizon.

Skywatchers should also be able to view Mars, setting just before dawn, and Saturn, hich sets around 2 a.m. Venus and Jupiter will also be visible in the west during the early evening sky, but both planets will set before the meteor shower peaks—Venus at 9:30 p.m. and Saturn at 11 p.m.

Those hoping to spot a shooting star should pick a spot with as little artificial light as possible and an open view to the north. In Greek mythology, Perseus was a mighty hero, but his constellation, while large, can be difficult to spot. It can help to look instead for the W-shaped constellation, Cassiopeia, just above Perseus, and then look directly down for Mirfak, Perseus’ brightest star. An assortment of apps can help map the sky on your cell phone. Even without knowing where to find the radiant, one should be able to see shooting stars; the brightest appear to travel across the entire sky.

The National Park Service’s Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills will be open from 8-9 p.m., tomorrow, August 11, before the shower peaks. Astronomers will be on hand to answer questions and share a look at the visible planets through telescopes, but the best place for Perseid viewing is often a backyard deck or lawn, where it is safe and comfortable for late-night star gazing.

A lounge chair or a yoga mat make meteor-watching a more pleasant experience. Insect repellent and a flashlight are also highly recommended, although the most important things are patience and time to lie back and watch. Setting the alarm and getting up before dawn can be a more practical approach than staying up late. The hours just before the sun comes up usually offer the best viewing opportunity provided the coastal fog hasn’t crept in to obscure the view.

For more than 2,000 years, skywatchers have observed the Perseid meteor shower. No matter how many times one has had the opportunity to experience this phenomenon, it’s always awe-inspiring. 

For more information on the Perseid Meteor Shower, visit NASA online

Suzanne Guldimann

Suzanne Guldimann is a writer, artist, and musician who lives in Malibu and loves the Santa Monica Mountains. She’s covered environment, arts, science, history and crime for the local media for more than a decade and is the author of nine books of music for the Celtic harp. She can be reached at s.guldimann@messengermountainnews.com

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