The Perseids are traditionally among the most popular meteor showers of the year, and Seattle is traditionally one of the worst places to watch for meteors. Fortunately, the weather and the stars could align for a potentially good show this week — and we have five options that will help you make the most of this summertime skywatching tradition.
Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through the trail of cosmic grit left behind by a comet. For example, the Perseids peak every year on the night of Aug. 12-13, when our planet’s path sweeps through a stream of Comet Swift-Tuttle’s leftovers.
“Perseid meteor rates can get as high as 100 per hour, with many fireballs visible in the night sky,” Bill Cooke, the head of the Meteoroid Environment Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said in a blog post.
But that rate assumes you can actually see the night sky, which is not a given in Seattle. The Emerald City leads the list of major U.S. cities in cloudiness, averaging 226 days a year when clouds cover three-quarters of the sky.
This week’s forecast provides some grounds for hope — with an emphasis on “some.” The outlook for Tuesday night (Aug. 11-12) and Wednesday night (Aug. 12-13) calls for isolated thunderstorms, with skies clearing later overnight. And late night is prime time for meteor showers: Best viewing begins after midnight and lasts till dawn.
Some years, the glare of the moon spoils the view, but this year the Perseids reach their peak while the moon is in its dark, “new” phase. That’s a big thumbs-up for meteor-watchers.
Another source of glare is Seattle’s city lights. You won’t see much if you’re looking out from your lanai in Belltown — but you’ll have much better luck if you head out to where the skies are clear and dark, get comfortable on a chaise lounge or blanket and give yourself at least a half-hour for your eyes to adjust to the dark.
The Perseid meteors appear to emanate from a point in the constellation Perseus — hence the name — but they can appear anywhere in the sky. The best strategy is to get as wide a view of the sky as possible, with a focus on the radiant point in the northeast.
Here are five places, near and far, that are haunts for meteor-watchers.
Alki Beach and Hamilton Viewpoint Park in West Seattle: Alice Enevoldsen, one of the stars of Seattle stargazing, recommends these spots for their open-sky view to the north over Elliott Bay. Green Lake Park is another good in-city option.
Rattlesnake Ridge near North Bend: If you really want to get away from city lights, this could be your first stop. Head east of Seattle on Interstate 90, take Exit 32 and drive 4 miles south on 436th Avenue SE (Cedar Falls Road SE). There’s a parking lot at the recreation area, but if it’s busy, you may have to park (safely!) on the side of the road. Don’t forget your flashlight or headlamp, but be respectful of other watchers in the dark.
Little Kachess Lake, just past Snoqualmie Pass: Enevoldsen’s favorite out-of-town meteor getaway is a day-use boat ramp on the lake, near Kachess Campground. The site is amid the wilds of the Cascades, so you might want to do some reconnaissance in advance of a midnight meteor run. Follow the signs from Exit 62 on I-90.
Elk Heights Road, off I-90 east of Cle Elum: This is a serious drive from Seattle, but it’s my favorite stopping-off place when the skies are cloudy on the west side of the mountains. Take Exit 93 off I-90 and turn left at the stop sign. There’s a fruit stand in the area, but don’t expect anyone to be on duty. It’s strictly BYOB (Bring Your Own Berries). State Route 970, leading east from Cle Elum to U.S. 97, can also provide some nice vantage points.
Mount Rainier Star Party: The country surrounding Washington’s highest peak is a perennial favorite for meteor-watching (and UFO-watching as well), but this year is special. The Seattle Astronomical Society is planning a star party on Tuesday night and Wednesday night at Mount Rainier’s Sunrise Visitor Center. The event is meant for amateur astronomers — but when the Perseids are out, we’re all amateur astronomers, aren’t we?
So where’s your favorite place for stargazing? If you don’t mind, share your secret in the comment section. Here’s a map to make it easier to find my favorite spots.
Many thanks to Jeff Berkes and Ken Vensel for sharing their pictures of picturesque Perseids. For more about Berkes, check out the website and Facebook page for Jeff Berkes Photography. He’ll be presenting a photography workshop at Mount Rainier in August 2016. For more about Vensel, take a look at his Flickr gallery and Facebook page. By the way, I’ll be sharing the stage with Seattle Times science writer Sandi Doughton at the Blue Star Cafe and Pub, 4512 Stone Way N., at 7 p.m. Wednesday for a chat presented by the Northwest Science Writers Association. We’ll be talking about earthquakes, Pluto and more. It’s the perfect warmup act for a night of meteor-watching.