Shooting star watch: How to stargaze the Perseid meteor shower

This weekend will offer some of the best stargazing of the year.

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Friday, Aug. 12, 2016 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

This weekend will offer some of the best stargazing of the year, as our planet makes its annual pass through the orbit of the massive Comet Swift-Tuttle, creating the phenomenon known as the Perseid meteor shower.

Dust and dirt melt out of the comet’s nucleus and hang in an orbital path. As these bits of debris enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they burn up. Though each is just the size of a grain of sand, burning 25 to 35 miles away, they create fantastic superheated streaks visible for a few seconds at a time. The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year, but conditions for watching it are especially favorable this year — and it can be viewed easily without any special equipment. The displays will peak Sunday with 60 to 100 streaks visible per hour.

Derek Pitts, chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute, has some advice on making the most of the celestial show.

The most important factors, he said, are beyond control. Meteor showers are most easily visible in a clear, dark sky, and Sunday night looks good on that front. Forecasts show some scattered rain, but otherwise cloudless skies in the area. And the new moon emerges Saturday, so it should set Sunday shortly after 9 p.m.

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But you can do many things to enhance your viewing experience.

Get out of the city
This is the big one. Especially in Center City, light pollution makes the meteor shower nearly imperceptible. Pitts said the shower should be visible from some of parts of the city farther from downtown — Nicetown-Tioga, Powellton, the Northeast. But your best bet is to drive a little outside the city in any direction, Pitts said, and “your chances of seeing begin to improve almost immediately.” Rural areas that are dark enough for you to see the shower especially well are within a 30-minute drive. For a really clear view, he recommended trying the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

No binoculars or telescopes
Telescopes are almost synonymous with astronomy, but your naked eyes aren’t just sufficient for watching meteor showers — they’re actually better. While binoculars or a telescope offer magnification, they also significantly limit your field of vision. You should be able to see the meteors just fine without any help, and you’ll be able to see a much larger swath of the sky that way.
“While you might be tempted to concentrate your view in one direction,” Pitts said, “you’ll actually see them all over the sky, because they enter the atmosphere at different points.”

Bring some friends
Even without additional tools, you’ll only be able to see one part of the sky by yourself. The meteors will be visible for no more than 4 seconds or so, and most of them will be closer to just a second or two, so you’re sure to miss a lot of them if you’re watching solo.

“If you have a group of people,” Pitts said, “it becomes more fun than frustrating.” You can each keep your eyes on different parts of the sky and alert one another when a meteor appears.

Elevation is your friend
Get up high if you can. It doesn’t matter that you’re marginally closer to the meteors, but you’ll be able to see more of the sky this way. You want the horizon to be as low as possible all around you. The better you can see over rooftops and treelines, the more meteors you’ll be able to see.

For a really spectacular viewing experience, get up on a ridge at the Delaware Water Gap. The Appalachian Trail runs along the spines of peaks there, with great views of the sky to the east.

Don’t rush it
One common mistake people make is giving up too quickly. The meteors will be appearing more than once per minute once it gets dark, but it can take your eyes a good 40 minutes to adjust, making it very difficult to find them at first.

“Plan to be outside for an hour, and just enjoy being outside in the dark,” Pitts said. That’s another good reason to bring some friends.

Early or late
The best time to watch the meteor shower is between midnight and sunrise, as the Earth is turning into the stream of meteors. But not all of us can get away with an all-nighter. You’ll be able to see plenty of meteors from about 9 p.m. onward, though, so don’t fret about not staying up super late. If you’re booked Sunday night, you can even watch the night before or the night after and still see an awful lot.

That all said, the best part of this celestial fireworks show is just how easy it is to watch.

“This is such a low-tech kind of thing to do,” Pitts said. For him, the optimal viewing experience includes “five or six friends, a couple bottles of wine, a radio, and some lounge chairs, maybe. I’m good to go.”

This article is part of a new effort recommending things to do in the Philly region. Tell us what you think.

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