The Perseid Meteor Shower is one of the most impressive meteor showers of the year. This year, due to a coincidence of orbital mechanics, the Earth will plow headlong into a particularly thick patch on August 11-12th. This clumping is the result of the planet Jupiter deflecting the orbits of the fragments stripped away from comet Swift-Tuttle. Scientific consensus is that the rate of visible meteors will rise from the usual 80 an hour to about 150 or over 2 a minute. Although the shower peaks during this time, we are actually seeing stragglers right now and will continue up until August 24.
The Perseids get their name because the radiating streaks we see shooting across the sky all seem to have an origin in the constellation Perseus. This constellation, named after the Greek demigod who slew the sea monster to save Andromeda, rises in the North around 10 PM. The best viewing will occur around and after midnight. It can be found by looking below the “M” (“or W”) of Cassiopeia, an easy to find constellation toward the North. Although the streaks will originate in this location, they will be visible throughout most of the sky because a slight variation in the location of meteor will greatly alter its trajectory. If you imagine the numbers on a clock, they meteor could streak in the direction of any number, so catching them is best when you have the greatest view of the sky.
To best view meteors, it is important to get as far away from any light source as possible, and that includes the glow over the horizon of nearby city. Viewers to the North as well as those to the East and West of Macon will have an better view than those due South, since the many street lights and signs in the city will reflect off dust particles and even wispy clouds in the atmosphere and cause a glow. This light will not only bleach out the often faint trails, but will prevent your eyes from adapting to the dark fully, which is the most important thing in viewing faint objects. The darkest skies in the world will not help if you’ve just come out from a brightly lit room or glanced at a street light.
The moon is also a little bit of an issue, as it will also lighten the sky and destroy your night vision, but it will set around 1 AM on the night of the 11th and set around 50 minutes later on the night of the 12th. This should not ruin the show for those who cannot stay up late, but will reduce the number of visible streaks.
If you are interested in maximizing your ability to see meteors as well as your comfort, the best way is to lie on your back in the grass (check for fire ants!) or a lawn chair with your feet pointing toward Perseus or slightly to the North-East. If the temperature drops below the dew point, it can get chilly and wet, so you might want to bring a jacket if you get cold easily.
Of all the things you can do, don’t bother with a telescope or binoculars. Meteor streaks are fast, like watching the Indy 500 on the front row fast. They also extend across the sky and the limited field of view offered by binoculars will be cramped. The magnification will also not add to the sow since the streaks last only a second or so and are so narrow, magnification will not make them appear any thicker.
Light given off by meteors is way out of proportion to their size. Most commonly, meteors are about the size of a grain of sand but will strike the Earth’s atmosphere about 50 miles up at a speed of 130,000 mph. This impact causes the grain to heat up and vaporize into glowing hot gas called plasma. To a person standing directly underneath, this would be visible at least 50 miles away, near the horizon, this could be visible for several hundred miles.
If meteor is large enough it will created an extremely bright streak called a fireball. Fireballs can light up the ground and even cast shadows. Of all the meteor shows throughout the year, the Perseids are one of the most likely to produce fireballs. I recall one year that the fireballs and bright streaks were so frequent that it became a bit alarming as I was viewing them alone in a nearby open field. With this year having a suspected peak, there should be even more of these brighter streaks visible.
Anyone who wants to photograph a meteor shower, the best way is to set your camera’s shutter open to as long of an exposure as practical. This is much easier on a DSLR, but some point and shoot camera allow this. It is important to mount the camera on a tripod and point it up so that you capture a good amount of sky toward the origin of the shower. You would want to test it and make sure that the resultant images are not bleached out, but that you can vaguely make out a tree line and see several stars you cannot see with the naked-eye.
My recommendation is to try 20 seconds to a minute at a moderate ISO like 400 using a fast lens like a Canon f/1.8 50mm or 28mm. Both are fast, but the 28mm has a better field of view, while the much less expensive 50mm will be a little tight. Getting the right settings is crucial and with so many options, it is best to make sure those setting are tested before you need them. One additional important factor is focusing. Since the meteors will be 50 miles away at minimum, you can use manual focusing on the moon to make sure you get sharp clear stars and steaks when you are ready to go. Just do not make the mistake of turning auto-focus back on.
The Perseid Meteor Shower will hopefully be a big one, but these showers are a lot like rain showers and nearly impossible to predict accurately. Just hope for no rain showers as any clouds will block the show.