It’s that time again: Meteors will rip through the sky this weekend. And chances are, this will be the best display of shooting stars that we’ve seen in many years. All we need is good weather.
That’s almost a joke. This summer has been among the cloudiest and haziest in memory. To see meteors optimally, we need a night that’s not only clear, but also rather dry. If it’s a humid, hazy day, we won’t see many. But if by some miracle a cold front has passed through a day or two earlier, we shouldn’t miss this opportunity. That’s because, unlike last year, the Moon will be a harmless crescent that doesn’t even rise until well after midnight: nice dark conditions for shooting stars. Here’s what to do.
You get two chances: two different nights this year, Saturday and Sunday. Me, I’ll be doing my annual “Night of the Shooting Stars” program at Mohonk Mountain House. That will be on Sunday night, and I hope that you’ll join me there. But honestly, you can see them just fine from your backyard if you’re away from the lights of town and turn off all your house lights and don’t have one of those neighbors with an unshielded yard light glaring into your eyeballs.
Probably the most important thing is to be comfortable. At Mohonk we set up blankets on the baseball field, and everybody lies down in a wonderfully dark place with a vast open patch of sky. You know where to go to create similar conditions. Maybe it’s your own backyard. If not, lakesides are often good (Cooper Lake is ideal, near Lake Hill), as are unlighted rural rec fields and even many cemeteries, if you avoid the sections with overhanging trees.
On Saturday night, you’ll see perhaps ten an hour between 10 p.m. and midnight. Again, that’s providing that the skies are clear and not impossibly hazy. It’s easy to judge: If you can see lots of stars, you’ll see lots of meteors too. After midnight, their numbers should increase to about 50 an hour: almost one a minute.
On Sunday night, you’ll probably see 15 an hour before midnight and 50 an hour afterward. But you can easily go five minutes seeing none at all, so don’t get discouraged and quit. During another random five-minute period, you might catch ten of them. The trick is to keep watching. If you’re standing craning your neck, it may start to ache; and then you’ll keep looking down, missing many of them. Another common fault is to keep looking at your companions and chatting with them and merely glancing up now and then.
The very best way is to bring a blanket or lounge chair out to your lawn, facing in your clearest direction or else straight overhead. Keep staring upward like a catatonic. If all your directions are equally clear, than face the northeast: roughly toward the place where the Sun rises in June, or a little to the left of that spot. The exact place to look doesn’t matter much.
If you’d like a few Perseid factoids while you’re watching, most are the size of appleseeds, and all of them travel at 37 miles a second. Their distance from you is always between 50 and 100 miles – even the brilliant ones that seem to come down in the next field. Actually, you don’t see the actual tiny ice pellets or gravel bits, but the sphere of superheated glowing air that surrounds them.
Bottom line is that we get two chances this year. If either Saturday or Sunday night is clear and crisp, grab it. You won’t be sorry.