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10 tips to minimize moon and optimize 2017’s Perseid meteor shower

A waning gibbous moon will do its best to drown out the 2017 Perseid meteor shower. Here are some tips for enjoying the moonlit Perseid meteors in 2017.

Moonlit meteor, November 1, 2015, via Eliot Herman in Tucson, Arizona. He wrote: “I have 2 rules for meteors: avoid the moon, if possible, and if not embrace the situation. Make the adjustments and accept that, while the photos probably won’t be epic, it’s possible to record the good ones. The moon isn’t so bad. Clouds are…”

In 2017, the legendary Perseid meteor shower – the Northern Hemisphere’s best summertime meteor shower – is expected to produce the greatest number of meteors between midnight and dawn on the mornings of August 12 and 13. The morning of August 11 might be good as well. This year, however, there is a bright waning gibbous moon in the sky all three mornings. This bright moon will obliterate all but the brightest Perseid meteors. Here’s how to minimize the moon and optimize the 2017 Perseid meteors.

By the way, there’s a rumor going around that 2017’s Perseid meteor shower will be the best in 96 years. It’s not true.

1. Try observing in the evening hours, on the nights of August 10, 11 or 12. After full moon on August 7, the moon will be rising later each night. Watch as late at night as you can, but before moonrise. Click here for a custom sunrise/sunset calendar – click box for moonrise/moonset times. You won’t see as many meteors during the evening hours, but you still might 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.

2. Or … watch in moonlight between midnight and dawn. Most meteor showers are best after midnight, and the Perseids are no exception. After midnight, the part of Earth you’re standing on has turned into the meteor stream, which means the radiant point for the shower will be above your horizon. After the radiant rises, more meteors are flying … unfortunately, in 2017, in the light of the moon.

3. Sprawl out in a moon shadow. When the moon is up around the shower’s peak dates, it’ll be casting looooong shadows in the sky around late night and early morning. Find a moon shadow somewhere that still provides you with a wide expanse of sky for meteor-viewing. A plateau area with high-standing mountains to block out the moon would work just fine. If you can’t do that, find a hedgerow of trees bordering a wide open field somewhere (though obtain permission, if it’s private land). Or simply sit in the shadow of a barn or other building. Ensconced within a moon shadow, and far from the glow of city lights, the night all of a sudden darkens while the meteors brighten.

4. Avoid city lights. This should go without saying, but just a reminder. A wide open area – a field or a lonely country road – is best if you’re serious about watching meteors.

5. 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.

6. Notice the speed and colors, if any, of the meteors. The Perseids are known to be colorful, although the moonlight will drown out their color in 2017. But it won’t affect their speed! The Perseids are swift-moving, entering Earth’s atmosphere at about 35 miles per second (60 km per second).

7. Watch for meteor trains. A meteor train is a persistent glow in the air, left by some meteors after they have faded from view. Trains are caused by luminous ionized matter left in the wake of this incoming space debris. A good percentage of Perseids are known to leave persistent trains. They linger for a moment or two after the meteor has gone. Again, hard to see in the moonlight, but watch for them!

8. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere … watch! At temperate latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere, the radiant of the Perseid meteor shower never gets very high in the sky. Therefore, the number of Perseid meteors seen from this part of the world isn’t as great as at more northerly latitudes. But if you’re game, look northward in the wee hours before dawn on August 11, 12 and 13, and you might still see a decent display of Perseids.

9. At the end of the Perseid shower, look for Venus. As dawn breaks, a bright planet will be ascending in the east before dawn. That’ll be Venus, third-brightest object in Earth’s sky after the sun and moon.

10. Embrace the moon. We hear people bubble with excitement about seeing meteors in all sorts of conditions – moon or no moon – city lights or no city lights. The Perseids, in particular, tend to have a lot of fireballs. And so, around the nights of the shower, try taking your lawn chair or blanket to a wide open location and bask in the moon’s bright light. You’ll see an occasional fireball streak by. It’ll be beautiful!

Eliot Herman in Tucson caught this image, as well as the image at the top of this post. He said this one – from early July -is the brightest meteor he’s caught so far in 2017, despite the moon. When we asked him for tips for shooting meteors in bright moonlight, he answered: “I shoot my images so that it is bright i.e. iso 2500 at F5 for 15 sec in RAW (this is critical) at 8 mm fisheye. Using the RAW images in Photoshop, I adjust the white balance to look like the sky color, and then adjust saturation, gamma, exposure, and levels until the stars appear against a background that looks closer to reality. It’s not difficult to do this, takes just a few minutes to process one image. There are aspects like moonlight reflections that one has to live with. I do not mask or otherwise hide anything, although that can be done with in Photoshop. But I like my images to be real, so no subtractions. Meteors at +2 magnitude can easily be seen even in full moonlight. In dark skies, I shoot iso 3200 F 3.5 for 15 seconds, and it is, of course, much better.”

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.

The cool visualization below uses NASA data to render known Perseid meteoroids – that is, debris left in space by Comet Swift-Tuttle – in our solar system.

Perseid meteor stream visualization. Be sure to click into the interactive page; it’s awesome! This visualization uses NASA data to render known Perseids meteoroids in our solar system and was created with the help of the SETI Institute with the goal of making it easier to understand the natural phenomenon of meteor showers. Meteor data from Peter Jenniskens, visualization developed by Ian Webster.

Radiant point of the Perseid meteor shower is in constellation Perseus, near the M-shaped constellation Cassiopeia. Northeast around midnight. Overhead-ish by dawn! Photo by our friend Martin Marthadinata in Indonesia.

Bottom line: A waning gibbous moon will do its best to drown out the 2017 Perseid meteor shower. Here are 6 tips for enjoying the moonlit Perseid meteors in 2017.

Best Perseid meteor shower in 96 years? Nope

Deborah Byrd