Highway to the Heavens


A long-exposure photo of the 2010 shower.

Jot down some wishes, because you’re about to get all the falling stars you need. The annual Perseid meteor shower — which, according to NASA, has been shooting “fireballs” our way since late July — should peak between Saturday and Tuesday. Hundreds of meteors will streak across the sky, each capable of fulfilling your wildest dreams. However, you can’t see them in the city. So, educate yourself on this incredible natural phenomenon and get in the car.

How to Prepare
Book your Zipcar. “Some meteors are bright enough to see in the city, but it’s much better to go where it’s darker,” says Linda Welzenbach, meteorite collection manager for the National Museum of Natural History. You might also want to take an afternoon power nap: “You will begin to see [meteors] as soon as it gets dark and the radiant point gets above the horizon,” says Welzenbach, meaning the Perseus constellation — where the Perseid shower gets its name — has to get high enough in the sky. It gets to that level around 11 p.m, but it’s best to wait until the pre-dawn hours, when he’s had a chance to climb a little higher.

What to Bring
Patience, a blanket and a “SUCK IT, AUSTRALIA” sign. The first because you could be out there a while; maybe bring some snacks and coffee, too. The second because it’s best to lie flat on your back, facing northeast (break out that compass app), for at least 30 minutes to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness. And the last because the event is visible only from the Northern Hemisphere. Yay, us!

Don’t Bring
A telescope, binoculars, a camera or anything that obstructs your field of vision; you want as wide of a view of the sky as possible.

What to Expect
NASA says Perseid produces more “fireballs” — meteors that are brighter than Jupiter or Venus — than any other annual meteor shower. At its peak, the shower should bring 60 to 100 meteors an hour. (The 2004 shower clocked in at 200 an hour.) Get an idea of what you’re looking for on YouTube, where time-lapse techniques speed up the wonder and majesty.

What to Wish For
World peace. That fireballs falling to Earth continue to be a fun, non-Armageddon-y thing to observe each year. A pony.

Want to know more?
The National Air and Space Museum’s monthly stargazing party is happening this weekend at Virginia’s Sky Meadows State Park just in time for prime meteor-watching. “Primitive camping” is available at the park if you’d like to make a night of it — which, since it’s over an hour outside the city, might be a good idea.

Sky Meadows State Park, 11012 Edmonds Lane, Delaplane, Va.; Sat., 7:30-10:30 p.m., free (reservations required for camping); 202-633-2214, airandspace.si.edu.
Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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