Now that all the kerfuffle over the so-called “Super Moon” (HATE that term!!! Who coined that? Lemme at ’em, lemme at ’em!!) has died down, there’s actually something worth looking for in the night sky the next few nights – shooting stars, or, more precisely, more shooting stars than usual. Why?
Well, despite their name, shooting stars – or “meteors” to use their proper name – are not stars at all; they’re tiny bits of space dust burning up as they streak thr0ugh Earth’s atmosphere. And although most people think they are very rare, so rare that superstition has it that it’s worth making a wish when you are lucky enough to see one, they’re really not. The solar system is full of this space dust, it’s everywhere, and Earth is encountering it all the time. So, on any clear night, if you’re lucky, i.e. looking in the right direction at the right time, you can see a shooting star every half hour or so probably. They’re just random events, a streak of light that comes from nowhere, from a random direction, that is gone in a moment.
However, at certain times of the year we can confidently look forward to seeing a lot more shooting stars than usual, because we know that Earth will be passing through a *stream* of dust left behind by a comet. When this happens, Earth encounters a lot more space dust, so a lot more burns up in the atmosphere, and we see a lot more shooting stars. Astronomers call this event a “Meteor Shower”, and there are about a dozen good ones, and lots of small ones, every year. One of the best occurs every August, around now, so now is a great time to go shooting star hunting. August’s shower is called the “Perseid” (“purr-see-id”) meteor shower, because its meteors appear to streak out of the constellation of Perseus. Every meteor shower has a peak of activity – a time when the most meteors are visible – and the Perseids’ peak is reached every August 12th, i.e. over TOMORROW NIGHT, but there’s enhanced activity a few nights either side of that too, so tonight, and for the next few nights, if the sky is clear where you are, if you go outside around midnight, and stay out for a while, you WILL see some shooting stars.
How many? Aaah, well, that depends on a few things, some of which you can change, one of which you sadly can’t. Let’s look at the things you can change first. Although you MIGHT see a few shooting stars if you just go out into your garden, stand on your step and look up, you can HUGELY improve your chances of seeing more shooting stars by getting out of town and away from all the light pollution caused by street lights, advertising hoardings and lit-up businesses to somewhere dark, where your eyes will be able to adapt to the darkness and so see fainter things than usual. If you stay at home and look from your garden there’ll be so much light around you, dazzling you, that you will only see the very brightest meteors. Also, getting out of town means you can see MORE of the sky, which is very important. Again, from your garden you will probably only be able to see a small portion of the sky, so you’ll have to hope a bright meteor or two zips across the sky in just the right direction for you, standing there in your slippers, and trust me, that’s a long shot! But get out of town, to a layby somewhere, or a farm gateway, or a hilltop, or the beach, anywhere with a wide open view of the sky, and you will greatly improve your chances of seeing some shooting stars.
The number of shooting stars you will see will also depend on how long you are willing to stop out looking for them, too. It should be obvious that the longer you can stay out, watching the sky, the more you will see. And meteor watching can be very frustrating. You need a lot of patience. During a meteor shower there’s not a constant zip…zip…zip of shooting stars. Activity waxes and wanes, there are sudden flurries of shooting stars, with a few visible one after the other, and there are long lulls too, when nothing seems to happen. During those times, when you start to feel tired, and a bit cold, and a bit fed up, you will hear a voice whispering things in your ear like “Go home… it’s finished… you’ve seen enough… it’s cold… you’re tired… you have work tomorrow…” but try to stay out as long as you possibly can because it really is simple: the longer you watch the more you’ll see. And bear in mind that there is always more activity between midnight and dawn than before midnight.
A personal tip here: if you’re wanting to watch the shooting stars, go in a group, or at least with an observing partner. The time will pass much more quickly if you have someone with you to talk to, it really will, and you will be less likely to listen to that voice whispering “Go home…” in your ear! It also makes the whole thing more enjoyable, as you will “ooh!” and “aaah!” together as a bright shooting star skates across the sky – or laugh when you see a lovely bright one but your partner misses it! And if there’s no-one you can go with, take a little radio for company, you’ll be amazed how much it helps just having music or people talking in the background.
So, all those things will help you maximise your Perseid-watching experience! However, this year there is a problem that we can do nothing about – a big, r0und, glaringly-bright problem: the Moon is in the sky at the time of peak activity, and it will be so bright and so close to the area of the sky the meteors will appear to zip out from that it will reduce the number we will see, quite dramatically. That’s a shame, it means we won’t see a lot of the fainter meteors, but it’s not the end of the world by any means as the brighter meteors will still be visible through the moonlight, and some of the Perseids can be very bright. So, yes, the Moon will cut down the number of shooting stars we will see, but it won’t ruin the show. It will still be worth getting out there and looking.
And how DO you look? Well, meteor showers are very, very easy to watch. Honestly, all you have to do is go outside at the right time, look up at the sky, and wait, and eventually you’ll see a shooting star. You don’t need any specialist astro equipment. A telescope is utterly useless during a meteor shower because telescopes magnify faint, small, static objects in the night sky, and meteors dash across the sky in a heartbeat, far too quickly for a telescope to follow. What about binoculars? Well, again, you won’t be able to follow any shooting stars through binocs as they skip across the sky, don’t try, but it’s definitely worth having a pair handy because sometimes the really bright meteors leave behind a ghostly, glowing smoke trail, which can linger for minutes before fading away, and through a pair of binoculars you’ll be able to watch that trail twist and turn and spread apart in slow motion. Also, during those previously mentioned lulls in activity you’ll be able to sweep your binocs around the sky, just taking in the view. It won’t matter that you won’t have a clue what you’re looking at, just enjoy seeing the different coloured stars, bright and faint, as you sweep across the heavens.
As for where you look in the sky, well, the meteors will be zipping out of a constellation called “Perseus”, which will be rising in the north east around midnight. It will be over to the left of the Moon, just beneath a “W” of stars which is the constellation “Cassiopeia”…
…but the shooting stars won’t all appear IN that direction. If you trace them all back they’ll all appear to come from the direction of Perseus, so start off by looking to the north east but you needn’t look AT Perseus all the time. Some will race over your head, others to the left of you, others to the right. Some will even drop out of the sky behind you. So, just get out, look…up… and see what happens. If you see a light streak across the sky, there and then gone again in a moment, that’s a shooting star!
How bright will they be? Well, some will be bright, some will be very bright, and a couple may even be VERY bright, so bright they shock you! But most will be just bright enough to see with the naked eye, and you’ll probably glimpse quite a few “out of the corner of your eye” when you’re looking in a totally different direction.
So, that’s how to look for the meteors, and where to go to watch them. What else do you need to know?
Well, just use your common sense really. I know it’s August, but it gets chilly after midnight so dress warmly – jacket, gloves, boots, the works. If you can, take a flask of a hot drink with you, and some snacks too, both of which will help keep you awake and alert. If you’re going out alone – try not to, ok? It really is much more enjoyable with company – then let people know where you’re going.
And finally, just ENJOY it! Some amateur astronomers count the number of meteors during a shower, and log their brightness and direction etc, but don’t feel you need to do that. Just get out there on any clear night over the next few nights, and wait and see what happens. Don’t worry about the Moon, just wait and see what happens, and if your sky is clear, and you are patient, you will see some shooting stars before you eventually decide to go home and crawl back under the duvet, trust me.
Oh, and if you fancy trying to take photos, you can, but you’ll need to have a camera capable of taking long time exposures – i.e. minutes long, using a “bulb” setting – mounted on a tripod. Aim your camera – set at a high ISO (what we used to call “Film speed” in Ye Olden days!) and fitted with the widest lens you have available, set at the widest aperture possible, f2, f3, something like that – to either side of Perseus, and just take lots and lots of photos. If luck is with you you’ll capture at least one shooting star on one of your pics, but if you don’t, don’t worry about it. Photos are just a bonus, it’s seeing the shooting stars that’s important.
…and that’s it! You’re all set now to go out tonight, and over the next few nights, to look out for shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower.
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