The outlook for this year’s Perseid meteor shower is checking all the boxes. Up to a meteor a minute? Check. Moonless sky? Check. Peaking during the weekend? Check. Clear weather? That even looks like a check mark for Sunday night in Seattle.
Only two clouds hang over what’s traditionally the year’s most watched meteor display. One is literal clouds: The skies won’t always be totally clear for this weekend’s peak, although the National Weather Service shows the cloud cover forecast improving as the weekend wears on. There’s also the smoke from Western wildfires to contend with.
The other cloud has to do with expectations: Yes, the Perseids can produce a meteor per minute, but that’s at the very peak of the shower, under peak conditions. So don’t be disappointed if your meteor mileage varies.
Every year, the Perseid meteor flux reaches its peak on the nights of Aug. 11-12 and Aug. 12-13 because that’s when Earth plunges through the thickest trail of cosmic grit left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle in its solar system rounds.
The meteor shower gets its name from the fact that the shooting stars appear to emanate from a point in the constellation Perseus. That’s due to the perspective we have on the trail of cosmic hail.
Right now the moon is just past its new phase, which means there won’t be any lunar glare spoiling the show during each night’s peak hours, from midnight to dawn.
Here are a few tips to maximize your viewing experience:
- Find a place that’s far away from the glare of city lights, with a minimum of trees and buildings blocking your view.
- Bring a lounge chair, blanket or sleeping bag and find a comfortable position for looking up into the night sky. Looking north is usually the best strategy, but meteors can appear anywhere in the heavens.
- Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark, and don’t expect to see fireworks. Don’t gaze into the glare of your smartphone if you can help it. Bring a flashlight so you can walk safely to your viewing spot, but be mindful of others.
- Consider taking along snacks and a thermos of coffee or some other energizing beverage to keep you alert during the pre-dawn hours.
We have a list of top five places in the Seattle area for night-sky viewing, from West Seattle’s Alki Beach and Hamilton Viewpoint Park to Mount Rainier. The Seattle Astronomical Society is planning a trailhead star party on Saturday night at one of our favorite spots, the Rattlesnake Mountain trailhead. One caveat: Expect to park along the side of the blacktop, and be prepared to hike up the road to get to where the action is. Oh, and try not to step on anybody in the dark.
Farther afield, the Table Mountain Star Party is in full swing near Oroville, Wash., as is the Mount Kobau Star Party near Osoyoos in British Columbia and the Oregon Star Party near Prineville in Central Oregon. All three of those star parties charge registration fees. There’s also a Hurricane Ridge star party in Olympic National Park on Saturday night, presented by the Olympic Astronomical Society.
If you’re stuck behind a computer this weekend, you can still get a taste of the meteor-watching experience by tuning in Slooh’s hosted webcast, starting at 2 p.m. PT Sunday and going into the evening. Weather permitting, NASA will provide a live webcast of the Perseids from its all-sky camera in Huntsville, Ala., via the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page starting at 6 p.m. PT.
The meteors aren’t the only game in town — or more accurately, out of town and in the night sky. Mars is still shining near its brightest in a moon-free sky, Venus is twinkling as an evening star, Jupiter can be seen in the southwest at evening twilight, and Saturn glows yellow in the south at nightfall. Sky & Telescope’s viewing guide lays it all out for you.
One thing you won’t see in the night sky, at least from the Seattle area, is the International Space Station. Its orbital trajectory just isn’t timed right to reflect the sun’s rays at the right time over the next couple of weeks. But bookmark NASA’s “Spot the Station” website to keep track of future opportunities.
Speaking of future opportunities, the next meteor shower worthy of note will be the Draconids, which reach their peak Oct. 7-8 on another moonless night. Check out EarthSky.org for a preview.