Making the Most of the Perseid Meteor Shower

August 11, 2016Edith HanNPF Blog
– Matthew Dieterich, Share the Experience

The reliable and beloved Perseid meteor shower is just around the corner as Earth makes its annual pass through trails of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years. Falling in mid summer and featuring fast and bright meteors at an average of 80 meteors an hour, the Perseid meteor shower would be the one of the ones to see.

If you haven’t had a chance to watch a meteor shower, 2016’s Perseid meteor shower just might be the one to catch. Forecasters are predicting an outburst which may gives us earthlings a spectacular show of 160, or possibly, 200 meteors on the night of the peak, which falls on the night of August 11-12 this year.

But what are some of the things that you should do or think about to make sure that you have a good viewing experience for not only the Perseid meteor shower, but any other ones down the line? Here are some things to take into consideration to have a successful viewing experience.

Milky Way over Badlands National Park
Kevin Palmer, Share the Experience 2013

Figure out the basics

There are about 12 annual major meteor showers through the year. Each time you choose to watch a meteor shower, it’s important to check on some basic information for that year to give yourself the optimal viewing opportunity.

  • Be sure you know which days the shower will peak. There are many resources online that provide information on not only which night(s) a meteor shower will peak, but at what time this peak will occur. Make sure you adjust for your timezone! This year’s Perseids meteor shower is predicted to peak on the night of of August 11 to the morning of August 12 UTC, with pre-dawn hours giving us the best part of the show.
  • Find out the moon phases and the hours of moonrise and moonset. It’s surprising how even a half-lit moon can affect your night vision and hinder your ability to see the other objects in the night sky. This year’s Perseids will be competing with the waning gibbous moon during the evening hours; luckily, the moon will be setting just after midnight, giving us a dark sky just in time for the pre-dawn hours.
  • Check the weather forecast before you head out. Unfortunately, a night with cloud cover and precipitation will only dampen your viewing experiences.

Milky Way at Canyonlands National Park
Yan Li, Share the Experience 2014

Find the darkness

Unfortunately, urban light pollution is the woe of many astronomers, professional and amateurs alike. Luckily, there are places that allow for fantastic meteor-shower viewing, including our national parks. In fact, there are 12 national parks that are dark sky certified by the International Dark-Sky Association that provide wide-open spaces for observation:

Milky Way over the salt flats at Death Valley National Park
Jeff Badger, Share the Experience 2015

Stay comfy

Though not necessary, you’ll want to think about bringing things that will maximize your comfort, and therefore enjoyment, of watching meteor showers.

  • Think about the environment: You’ll want to give yourself ample time for meteor-shower viewing, but you probably won’t want to stay out there for too long if you’re fighting to stay warm. If you’re going somewhere where it’ll be cold, make sure you bring extra layers or even a blanket.
  • Bring a chair or a picnic blanket. Craning your neck to the sky for hours doesn’t sound very enjoyable.
  • It doesn’t hurt to bring a cup of hot chocolate, tea, or coffee to sip on throughout the night. And on that note, snacks aren’t a bad idea either.
  • Are you going somewhere with mosquitos or other nasty biting bugs? Don’t forget to bring your bugspray!

Milky Way over Big Bend National Park
Rowdy Winters, Share the Experience 2015

Bring the right viewing equipment

You don’t need any fancy equipment like binoculars or telescopes, but there are some other things you can bring that can be helpful.

  • Bring a flashlight, preferably a red one. It takes your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the darkness. A red-tinted flashlight will be less disruptive to your natural light vision compared to a white light. Don’t have one? Try taping some red construction paper over your flashlight.
  • Get a star chart! Meteor showers usually radiate from a single point in the sky, and locating that point will help point you in the right direction. In the case of the Perseid meteor shower, these meteors will be coming from a point in front of the constellation Perseus. There are resources online for you to print your own, or you can buy a planesphere so you can locate where constellations are.  There are also mobile apps that provide this information as well.

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the show

Milky Way at Grand Canyon National Park
Jeff Berkes, Share the Experience 2012

Header image credit: Mount Rainier National Park - Matthew Dieterich, 2015 Share the Experience.


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