Meteor Shower Watching

One of the most well known meteor showers of the year is the Perseid Shower, which is seen in August skies. It is not the most spectacular of the year, but it is the best summer (comfortable weather) meteor shower in the northern hemisphere.

The Major Meteor Showers of the Year

Name of Shower

Radiant Constellation

Date of Maximum

QuadrantidDracoJanuary 4
LyridLyraApril 22
Aquarid-EtaAquariusMay 5
Aquarid-DeltaAquariusJuly 29
PerseidPerseusAugust 12
DraconidDracoOctober 10
OrionidOrionOctober 20
LeonidLeoNovember 17
GeminidGeminiDecember 13

Perseid meteors are caused by dust and gravel from Comet Swift-Tuttle which was last near the Earth and sun in 1993. As the Earth moves along its orbit around the sun, it runs into some of this dust and gravel each August. As the dust burns up in the atmosphere of the Earth, it glows brightly, causing what some people call shooting stars, what astronomers call meteors. You may see as many as 60 Perseid meteors in an hour. When a lot of meteors are seen like this, it is called a meteor shower.

In 1999, the Perseids peaked on the night of August 12 to 13. The time to see the most meteors is after midnight, when your part of the earth is on the front of the planet as it plows through space into the swarm of comet dust. After midnight, it's like looking out the windshield of a car as it drives into a snow storm. You should see a lot of snow flakes hit the glass. Before midnight, you are looking at the part of space the Earth just came from, sort of like looking out the back window of the car and seeing a few snow flakes which swirled past.

The Perseid Shower is named for the constellation Perseus, which is where the meteors seem to start their path across the sky. You will see more meteors if you look towards this constellation which is near the more familiar W shape of Cassiopeia.

Here is what to do. On any clear night between July 23 and August 22, get a comfortable lawn chair or blanket, put on a jacket or sweatshirt to keep you comfortable in the cool of the night and go out to where there are not too many outdoor lights (the darker the better). No other equipment is necessary. Sit or lie down where you have a good view of the northern sky. Look towards the constellation Perseus or Cassiopeia. Watch carefully for "shooting stars." Count the number you see. If you want to go about it scientifically, visit the Basics of Meteor Watching.

If you can use a camera which can have its lens set open for a while using a cable release, set the camera up on a tripod and leave the lens open for 10 or 15 minutes while pointed at the sky. When you get the film developed, the curving streaks of light in the pictures will be the stars as the earth turns beneath them. Any straight paths of light will be moving objects such as airplanes or meteors.

For more astronomy ideas, visit Astronomy Magazine.

For more on meteors, visit the International Meteor Organization Homepage or Meteors, Meteorites and Impacts.

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