Here they come! Already the post-midnight sky is ablaze with three or four times more shooting stars than normal. Each night their numbers increase. The spectacle culminates on Sunday night. This year the Moon is a harmless crescent that sets hours before the meteors start cranking up at 11 p.m.: perfect.
At Mohonk Mountain House I will be holding our annual “Night of the Shooting Stars” program and I hope you’ll come. But if not, you’ll see them just fine from your backyard – if you follow four important tips. These do not change from summer to summer, so after repeating them almost yearly on this page since 1975, I won’t blame you if it sounds like a broken record. Can you recite them yet, like a mantra?
First, after 11 p.m., get away from the lights of town. If you already live in a rural location, turn off those window lights and let your eyes get dark-adapted. (If you have young kids and don’t want them to be up late, you will indeed see some meteors right after nightfall, but only at about a third of their post-midnight intensity.)
Second, don’t try to watch the sky through little breaks between trees. You need a wide-open swath of sky. If your backyard suffers an obstructed view, good tried-and-true locations include cemeteries, lakesides and baseball fields. You can face in any direction, though the northeast is favored.
Third, keep staring at the sky. Don’t just glance upward now and then. These Perseid meteors are super-fast. They collide head-on with the Earth and sizzle through our atmosphere at 37 miles per second. Each is visible for only a second or two. By the time a companion has shouted “Look at that!” you’ve missed it. Therefore, and to avoid neck strain, spread a blanket or use lawn chairs.
Finally, we need mostly clear skies. Ideally, it should also not be too humid or hazy. We want the kind of night when the heavens seem wallpapered with countless stars. If we don’t get that Sunday night, try again on Monday.
As for what you can expect, Sunday night after midnight you should easily see a meteor a minute. On Saturday night, when the shower is still building, and on Monday night, when only the stragglers remain, you might observe one every four or five minutes.
This is our best and only meteor opportunity for the next couple of years. The 2013 December Geminid display will be blown out by a nearly Full Moon, and so will next summer’s Perseids. This is the one. Let’s do an anti-rain dance.