WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2015 – This week’s moonless evenings could give stargazers a fantastic light show as the annual Perseid meteor shower, known for being among the brightest of meteor showers, comes to its conclusion.
The best viewing will be Thursday evening, when the meteor shower will be easily visible with the naked eye from the Northern Hemisphere. “If you see one meteor shower this year, make it August’s Perseids or December’s Geminids,” NASA says. “The Perseids feature fast and bright meteors that frequently leave trains, and in 2015 there will be no moonlight to upstage the shower.”
The meteor shower is made up of particles released from Comet 109/Swift-Tuttle during its many trips to the inner solar system. The first mentions of the meteor shower dates back to the Chinese in 36 A.D. Astronomer Adolphe Quetelet was the first to document that the meteors came from the constellation Perseus; the annual shower is also called the “Tears of St. Lawrence” because they coincide with the Aug. 10 date of the saint’s martyrdom.
The American Meteor Society says the meteor shower that started in late July peaks between Aug. 12 and 13. Timing for this week’s star-gazing is excellent as skies should be dark as the moon phases move toward the Sturgeon Moon, named by American Indians because they knew that the sturgeon of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain were most readily caught during the August full moon.
Under clear and dark skies, observers could expect to see up to 100 shooting stars an hour as conditions for excellent viewing are the best they have been since 2010.
To view the show all that is necessary is a dark sky with limited light pollution and a blanket or lawn chair to lean back and watch the show. Streaks of light should be visible to the naked eye that evening. However, those who enjoy early morning viewing may find some of the strongest showings happening in the predawn hours.
The Perseids are named after the constellation Perseus because that is where the meteors seem to originate when you are looking up at the sky.
If you have a planisphere wheel, Perseus is surrounded by Auriga on the northwest, Camelopardalis on the north, Cassiopeia on the mortheast, Andromeda on the east, the Triangulum on the southeast, Aries on the south and Taurus on the southwest.
Cassiopeia’s W shape can be located by aligning the third star of the Big Dipper’s handle and Polaris. From the Big Dipper, trace an imaginary line to Polaris and continue in the same direction, for about two thirds of the distance separating the Big Dipper from Polaris.
An easy way to identify the stars, planets and constellations is Dr. T.S. Kelso’s (@TSKelso) Star & Planet Finder app. While not free, it offers an easy-to-use interface that can have the youngest person finding and identifying the stars, planets and constellations in the night sky.
However, even if you cannot find Polaris you should be able to see streaks across the Northern Hemisphere sky by simply finding a dark place, away from urban lights, and looking up.