Fresh Takes: Urban Stargazing and The Perseid Meteor Shower
“Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.”- Plato
For centuries, mankind has been captivated by the glittering firmament of night sky. This weekend, the heavens offer us one more reason to look up as the Perseid Meteor Shower reaches its peak. While stargazers in rural areas will have an easier time of catching the dazzling display, urbanites need not despair! We’ve got advice from astronomers around the country to make sure you don’t miss out on the fun.
Best Times to View The Perseid Meteor Shower:
After moonset, in the pre-dawn hours between 10:30pm- 4:30 am, August 11-12 and August 12-13.
We checked in with Bing Quock, Assistant Director at the Morrison Planetarium, who gave us a quick rundown for beginners:
Q: I’m new to the astronomy game. What should I know about meteor showers?
“Meteor showers occur because Earth is passing through the trail of dust particles left behind by a comet. These particles pass through the atmosphere at speeds as high as 45 miles per second, or up to 100 times faster than a rifle bullet, heating up to 3000 degrees F. [This causes] the streak of light that many call a “shooting star.” Typically, the recommended time for viewing a meteor shower is between midnight and the start of morning twilight…However, in the hours between nightfall and about 10pm, when the shower’s radiant is on the horizon, it might be possible to catch sight of a few bright “Earth grazers,” which skim the top of Earth’s atmosphere like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond, leaving long trails. Though rare, these can be quite memorable.”
Q: Amazing! What makes the Perseid Meteor Shower a “must see”?
“It’s one of the best showers of the year and can produce approximately 60-80 meteors per hour. Since it occurs in August, fewer people have any problem with the idea of staying out late on a warm summer night. The Perseids are also known to produce more fireballs (i.e. very bright meteors) than any other shower.
The Perseid shower is named after the constellation Perseus the Hero because although the meteors are falling to Earth in parallel paths, the effect of perspective makes their paths appear to converge in the distance like railroad tracks stretching to the horizon. This point, or “radiant,” is located in Perseus, but that doesn’t mean to look only toward that constellation. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but their paths will all point backward to the stars of Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 10pm. Beginning stargazers can look for Perseus around11pm, when it has risen high enough above the horizon to be seen – just look for the “W” of stars that forms the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, and Perseus will be the group of stars 20 degrees below it.”
Don’t have the time to escape the glow of the city? Our astronomers shed some light on finding the dark.
Q: I want to see the shower, but I don’t have time to drive someplace rural – what should I do?
“An important key to seeing the most that the night sky or a meteor shower has to offer is to be as far as possible from the glow of city lights and to give your eyes time to adjust to the night. If you can’t escape the city, make sure that any lights in your viewing area are behind you.” – Scott Kardel, Managing Director of Darksky.org
“If getting out of the city isn’t practical, a sheltered area shielded by trees or the dark shadow of a building is better than nothing, but it will restrict your view of the sky. At least try not to be in the glare of any bright lights. Allow at least 20 minutes for proper dark-adaptation (many meteors can be quite faint), and be patient.” – Bing Quock
Ready to try your hand at urban astronomy? The experts weigh in on other wonders the summer sky has to offer.
Q: What else can I see while I’m waiting for the meteors?
“While waiting for meteors, practice star pattern identification. Some of the star-shapes you see in the night sky are not constellations but “asterisms,” which are simply recognizable shapes made of bright stars. A good example is the famous Big Dipper. The famous zodiacal constellations Sagittarius the Archer and Scorpius the Scorpion can [also] be seen. Though originally imagined as a mythical centaur (half-man/half-horse), Sagittarius can easily be seen to form the shape of a teapot, while hook-shaped Scorpius is one of the few constellations that actually resembles what it was named for. Those fortunate enough to get away from city lights to dark skies will easily see the faint band of the Milky Way.Try to see if you can detect the colors of stars – though subtle, they reveal the stars’ relative temperatures (white & blue are hotter, while orange & red are cooler).”– Bing Quock
If you are lucky enough to have a telescope, Rick Hiestand, Lead Astronomer at Sky’s The Limit Observatory and Nature Center, says it’s a great time to seek out dark sky objects such as the Lagoon Nebula, Eagle Nebula and Swan Nebula (also known as M8, M16 and M17, respectively). Even with a small telescope or binocular, stargazers can catch a glimpse.
Now you are just a night sky and a picnic blanket away from your own astronomical experience. Just for fun, our experts offer some personal tips!
“You will be outside for a good while, and will want to lie flat on your back to soak up as much of the sky as possible. To stay cozy bring a blanket, a jacket and hat, warm cocoa and water, and friends and family. The more the merrier! If you know of a gathering of folks, or an even hosted by a local astronomy club, go there-especially if it’s your first time! Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Night Sky network folks and the ASP, we have a “search for clubs and events in your area” feature, located here: http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/event-calendar.cfm. Clubs in your area: http://nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov/club-map.cfm” – David Prosper
Paul Salazar, The Urban Astronomer and member of the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers agrees that the Perseid shower is best enjoyed as a social experience, “[having friends] multiplies your raw experience. When you have more people, you have more eyes looking in different parts of the sky.”
Rick Hiestand suggests setting your sights on Comet ISON, which he says may be the “comet of the century, or two!” Spectators should be able to see it blazing into view in early December 2013. Click here for more information and photos.
Our astronomers leave you with parting thoughts on stargazing in four cities across the U.S.
“Try to get to the darkest location you can. The darker it is where you are, the more meteors you will see streaking across the sky. In the Bay Area we have lots of hills that are pretty good at hiding the city lights. Of course, we have fog to deal with, too. Check the weather forecast for that night! You may need to check out two or three areas for predictions on fog, clouds and temperature. Some weather sites even offer forecasts specially tailored for sky watching. Make sure you have clear skies.”- David Prosper, Astronomical Society of the Pacific
Paul Salazar highly recommends joining the SFAA for their monthly Star Parties, which includes lectures, star tours and telescope demonstrations. Check out the group’s website for information on joining them this month for the Perseid shower.
Additional San Francisco Astronomical Information:
For observatories, planetariums and astronomical associations in the Bay Area, check out this excellent list from Baynature.org.
New York City
Michal Simon, Professor Emeritus and Research Professor at Stony Brook University, suggests ways to avoid the bright lights of the city.
“Take Staten Island Ferry. You’ll be in the middle of the harbor with no bright lights. It’s also a nice romantic thing to do and the city looks beautiful. [If you] go eastward on Long Island, you’ll probably want to go to something like Robert Moses State Park. [You can also take the] Taconic parkway and look for rest areas – few miles north of the city.”
While the Perseid shower may be difficult to see from the middle of the city, Michal says, “My wife and I go to the porch of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in the middle of the winter and see Orion. [Once, I was] walking on Broadway north of Lincoln Center towards Central Park and [observed] a lunar eclipse, so naked eye astronomy from NYC is possible.”
Additional New York City Astronomical Information:
Rick Heistand recommends visiting http://www.skysthelimit29.com/ for information on their Perseid viewing event, presented in coordination with Joshua Tree National Park. On August 12th, Stargazers can look forward to informative lectures and telescope access.
Additional Los Angeles Astronomical Information:
“Go to http://www.inquinamentoluminoso.it/worldatlas/pages/fig2.htm and download the detailed map (2mb). Go where the map is colored blue or black (at the very least green). Here in Southwest Florida we are fortunate to have a few blue areas. If you bring a star chart use only a faint red light for illumination. A nice comfy lawn chair and bug spray are handy. No telescope or binoculars are required and are not even useful for meteor showers. Just sit facing the constellation Perseus and relax.” – Mike Usher, President of the Everglades Astronomical Society
Check out Mike’s biweekly column for the Coastal Breeze News on Marco Island. The club is leading a small group out to the Everglades to watch the Perseids. For further information, can contact Jackie at firstname.lastname@example.org
Additional Fort Myers Astronomical Information:
Can’t stay up for the Perseid shower? Zerve has got a few ideas of our own for unique stargazing opportunities:
* A big thank you to Christina Loiacono for her contributions to this post. Christina majored in astronomy at Stony Brook University and is Zerve’s own resident astronomer!