As far as Grecian heroes go, Perseus really has it all. He’s the son of Zeus and Danea; so he’s got the fame. He’s slayed his fair share of monsters, including “snake-for-hair” Medusa; so he’s got the street cred. He rescued the damsel-in-distress Andromeda from a serious sea serpent set upon her by Poseidon; so he’s got the girl. With a resume like this, it’s not surprising that Perseus is one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky.
Each summer in Northern latitudes, we are treated to the Persied Meteor shower. These meteors are actually remnants of the tail of a comet named Swift-Tuttle. This comet orbits through our solar system, and its tail debris stretches hundreds of thousands of miles through space. As the comet crosses Earth’s path, bits of rock and ice slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere, and we get to view to some of the most spectacular “shooting stars” in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Persieds began in July, but will be peaking this week. Gazers can expect to see up to 50 meteors per hour in the Northeast sky radiating from the belt of the constellation Perseus. The full peak of the shower will be on Sunday, around midnight and the view should be great this year as the moon is only at 32% of full. Here are some tips for viewing!
1. Watch all week — Sure, the meteor shower peaks Sunday, but there will still be lots of streaking debris through next week. The best time for viewing with the least amount of moon interference is immediately proceeding dawn. At that time, the moon will set just a bit before the sun rises, so there will be a few minutes of great dark skies.
2. Get out of town — City lights of any kind are going to obscure your view, so head out to the country to the darkest spot you can find. I’d suggest camping out at a local State Park and setting an alarm to wake you up in the wee hours of the morning if you really want a great view.
3. Find a moon shadow — The moon will be shining low in the southern skies around dawn this week. If you can find a barn or big tree or hill, you can sit on the north side and amplify the darkness. The darker the sky appears for you, the more meteors you’ll see.
4. Bring a sky map — If you’re going to be out star-gazing anyway, bring a sky map. There are five planets that are visible from Earth with the naked eye, and three of them appear in August (four if you’re lucky enough to glimpse Mercury just before sunrise). Saturn will be in the West in the early evening, and you can even view its rings with a telescope. As Saturn sets around 11 p.m., you should see Jupiter rise, and then Mars will follow Jupiter’s path in the sky a few hours after that. Besides the planets, it’s a fun time to find constellations like Queen Cassiopeia in her “W” shaped chair, Canus the dog, Ursa the Great Bear (A.K.A. the Big Dipper), Ursa Minor the Little Bear (A.K.A. the Little Dipper), Taurus the Bull, and many more.
5. Get the App — I apologize for the advertisement, but for my money, the app “Star Walk” (available on iPhone and Android) is simply one of the best celestial aids out there. Point it at the sky to see a map of the constellations you’re looking at. Point it at a major star and find out where it is, how big it is, and how many millions of year old the light you’re viewing today is. Besides the great live features, the app also gives you a picture of the day and a calendar — without which I would have forgotten the Persieds. The app is $2.99 for iPhone and $4.99 for iPad. It’s totally worth it.
I hope you follow your Adventure Foot for some star-gazing this week. Your next best chance for a meteor shower will be this winter when the Geminids will be streaking through our skies, but believe me when I say that sitting outside in August is substantially more comfortable than doing the same in January.
P.S. — I couldn’t write a blog about the stars without mentioning my favorite poem of all-time: When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer, by Walt Whittman.
Happy star gazing everyone!