In 2011, the legendary Perseid meteor shower – the northern hemisphere’s best summertime meteor shower – is expected to peak between midnight and dawn on Saturday, August 13. That night, however, the full moon will be shining brightly in the sky from dusk until dawn, obliterating all but the brightest Perseid meteors. Here’s how to minimize the moon and optimize the 2011 Perseid meteors.
There’s no way around it. We have to work around the moon in 2011 because the full moon and the Perseids’ expected peak will both fall on Saturday, August 13, 2011. But EarthSky can provide some helpful hints on how best to enjoy summertime meteors this year.
1) Start watching for Perseid meteors now, and continue watching until after the shower’s peak on August 13. What, you say? Watch now for a shower that peaks nearly two weeks from now? Yes. The Perseids actually begin in mid-July, and they gradually build to a peak. If you’re in a dark location, you can see plenty of Perseids in the week or two before the peak.
2) Watch in the wee hours before dawn on August 9 and 10 On the peak night of August 12/13, there won’t be any moon-free time for viewing. However, on August 9 and 10, the moon will set a few to several hours before sunrise, providing an hour or two of dark sky for watching the Perseid meteors. Meteors fly at a lower rate several days before the peak date, perhaps at 15 to 20 Perseids per hour, but a dark sky makes all the difference in the world for watching summertime’s classic shower.
3) Sprawl out in a moon shadow The best viewing on any date is from about 2 a.m. until dawn. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, the moon will be shining low in the south to southwest sky on the peak nights. That means the moon will be casting looooong shadows. Find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides a wide expanse of sky. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to the south and southwest would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a great big hay field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn. Ensconced within a moon shadow and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens while the meteors brighten.
If blessed with clear skies on or near the predicted peak date, a moon shadow may be your ticket to this year’s production. This annual meteor shower is beloved by many for its rich and reliable display of meteors. It does not disappoint – unless of course there are clouds (or a full moon) at the time of the Perseids peak.EarthSky’s meteor shower guide for 2011
From Deborah … When I was young, I spent many a predawn hour reclining on a lawn chair under a bright moon or no moon at all, watching for meteors. I saw a bunch of Perseids even on moonlit nights, but they tended to be fleeting little meteors rushing along against the moon-washed sky. Over time, I began to feel more and more strongly that those moonlit meteor experiences couldn’t compare with meteor-watching in dark moonless skies. But, in recent years, I’ve changed my mind about this. It began with my daughter – now 31, and herself a veteran meteor-watcher. She would bubble with excitement about seeing meteors in all sorts of locations – moon or no moon – city lights or no city lights. Since the advent of social media, we now hear from hundreds of people who glimpse meteors in the light of the moon and feel elevated because of it. So even though there’s a moonlit sky on the night of the Perseids peak in 2011, you can still glimpse a meteor or two, or more – and you can still enjoy them very much.
From Bruce … If you want to see the Perseid shower in a totally moonless sky, 2011 is not your year. The Perseids are an especially rich and dependable meteor shower. In the northern hemisphere, they are often the best meteor shower of the year. They shoot across the sky – often leaving persistent trains – and occasionally lighting up the sky with bright fireballs. The shower typically produces 50 or more meteors per hour on the mornings of their peak – and this year it’ll be fun to know how many meteors people can manage to see from a moon shadow on the morning of the peak, August 13. Between now and then, the moon will be waxing in the evening sky, and – before the moon waxes too large – you might see some Perseids in the the evening hours. Although the Perseids are best after midnight – and don’t tend to produce a high number of meteors in the evening – evening is the best time to catch an earthgrazer, which is a slow-moving and long-lasting meteor that travels horizontally across the sky. If you see one, you’ll have a new appreciation for evening meteor watching.
If you’re serious about trying to see a large number of Perseids, you should avoid city lights. A wide open area – a field or a lonely country road – can work well. If you’re watching between midnight and dawn, the meteors will appear in all parts of the sky. Watch with friend or friends, and try facing in different directions so that if someone sees a meteor, that person can call out “meteor” to the rest.
The Perseid meteors are named for the constellation Perseus the Hero. If you trace the paths of the meteors backwards, they seem to radiate from this constellation.
Meteors are also called shooting stars, but they have nothing to do with actual stars.
Instead, they start out as bits of dust left behind in space by a comet. The Perseid meteor shower peaks annually at this time of year, as our planet Earth passes through the orbital path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. Even though this comet is now moving in the outer solar system, the stream of rubble trailing Swift-Tuttle extends for hundreds of millions of kilometers in space. For several weeks from late July to mid-August, debris left behind by this comet slams into Earth’s atmosphere. The fragments vaporize as they fall through our atmosphere, and the result is the Perseid meteor shower.