There are very few instances beyond a day or two, especially during summer, that one can predict showers with complete certainty. This week is just such a case, except the showers are not rain, but the annual appearance of the Perseid meteor shower. This year, the issue is if and when the meteors will be visible to the naked eye. And it turns out, they may be most visible very late tonight.
Assuming clear skies, no moonlight, and away from city light pollution, the Perseids are invariably considered the most reliable and spectacular of meteor showers with often 60 – 120 meteor streaks appearing per hour. This year the Perseids peak late Friday evening to the early morning hours of Saturday.
Unfortunately, while clear skies are a possibility during this time, this peak coincides with a full moon shining brightly in the sky from dusk until dawn. Consequently, only the brightest of the Perseids will be visible.
However, no need to despair. The Perseids actually began in mid-July , and have been gradually been building toward the late week peak.
According to Earth Sky, the best view of the Perseids this year may well come just before dawn very late tonight or early tomorrow morning (Wednesday). The moon will be setting a couple hours before twilight leaving this window of opportunity of dark, moonless skies.
To optimize the opportunity for meteor viewing find a rural area removed from significant light pollution and look for meteor streaks appearing to originate from the constellation Perseus in the northeast quadrant of sky. The rate of meteors will be less than if Wednesday morning were the peak, but expect to see maybe 15-20 Perseids per hour.
Space.com has posted a handy table indicating the length of dark sky windows after moonset over the next several nights. In Washington, D.C., for example, the optimum window for viewing the shower will be between 2:49 and 4:31 a.m. Wednesday morning and 4:02 and 4:32 a.m. Thursday morning.
It may still be possible to see shooting stars Thursday and Friday mornings by finding a location out of view of the moon lying fairly low in the east to northeast sky (i.e., location in moon’s shadow) and looking at the darker sky towards the northeast. Even in full moonlight there’s always a reasonable chance during the Perseids to sight an occasional, brilliant fireball streak across the sky.
Ever since I can remember when weather cooperated, moon or no moon, I’ve managed to find a good location (preferably a beach) to lay on the ground (or recliner) during predawn hours of August mornings watching the Perseid meteors. You do not need any equipment, only your eyes and reasonable degree of patience. I highly recommend the experience – its well worth the sacrifice of a few hours of sleep.
Due to this year’s moonlight, the Perseids in 2011 may not be the Snowmaggedon of meteor showers, but I suspect as snow lovers would not be disappointed with a moderate snowstorm, sky watcher enthusiasts will still enjoy this year’s shower.
If you manage to get yourself up and away to reasonable location, please let us know of your experience and meteor sightings.