This article was contributed by David Baumgartner as part of a local series on astronomy.
All around the world, not just astronomers but stargazers in general get excited when the Perseid meteor showers approach our skies. And the summer’s best is upon us. The showers actually start up in a minor way on July 17 and build up to good numbers from August 10 through the 15th. But the peak, or best nights to observe, would be August 11 and 12. Then fade away by August 26. The Perseid showers are remnants from the return of the parent comet Swift-Tuttle back in 1992. Each year our planet passes through that same area and gives us the great show we see today.
From a clear and dark location (like our south county) one could expect to see as many as 60 to 100 streaks per hour, very respectable when it comes to meteor showers, but still not as glorious as the Leonid showers I had the pleasure of witnessing in November of 2001, which will always be know as one of the greatest showers of our time.
I was up in Lake Tahoe attending some meetings. I was anxious to catch a glimpse of the showers that night. But as bad luck will prevail the clouds came in and there was nothing to see that night. Typical astronomer’s luck. I went to bed disappointed. I woke up around 3 a.m., just happened to take a look out the window, and low and behold there were two meteors simultaneously passing through a small opening in the sky. So now I’m getting excited, I didn’t miss out after all on the best meteor shower for the ages. Now I’m thinking that I have to go out there no matter how cold. Naturally I didn’t dress or prepare for this sub-freezing evening. I expected to be inside for the meetings and not gallivanting around in the cold night air. I gathered up all the clothing I could muster and topped it off with the clean white robe the hotel provided. I made the mistake and took a look at myself in the mirror, big mistake. I looked like a polar bear, a sick one at that. If I go outside and run into someone I won’t hear the end of it. Well, I’ve got to take that chance. So I slowly open my door to the hallway hopping no one will see me. Lucky for me the hallway was empty.
I’m running as fast as I can with this getup I have on. I reach the elevator, push the button and waited for it to open. After standing there, what seemed like forever, the doors opened. And to my surprise, there stood in their hotel white robes, three women and a man from my meetings dressed as if our mothers all shopped at the same wardrobe store. It looked as if they were going through the same situation I was. At this time we all had a good laugh and were all feeling more comfortable with our attire. We reached the bottom floor, went outside in the cold. And there was what looked like the north pole; snow on the ground with all these maladjusted polar bears running around looking up in the sky yelling; there’s one, I see two. I have never in my life seen so many bright shooting stars as I did on that night. At one time I saw four shooting across the constellation of Orion, the showers namesake. Of course I didn’t have my camera, but the memories of that night still linger in my mind as if it was last night.
Well to end this story, I have to say that that night turned out to be one of the most fantastic evenings I have ever had looking up at the night sky. Maybe even eclipsing the magical solar eclipse I witnessed in Egypt.
I’m sorry I got a little carried away there. Now where was I? Oh yes.
How about taking some photographs of these shooting stars? Well it couldn’t be any easier. Set the lens wide open and set for infinity. Put the camera on a tripod, if you have one, or set it up in a way you won’t interfere with it while it is imaging. Point the camera between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia (yes, get your books out once again) and open the shutter anywhere between one minute to 60 minutes in length or more if you would like. The longer you open it the better chance you have of catching one of the meteor streaks. It is interesting to see on the longer exposures how the stars seem to streak as well, caused by the rotation of the earth.
On the evening of the 11th and the morning of the 12th, a quarter phase crescent moon will be coming up at midnight in the eastern sky hindering your view at observing the Perseid meteor showers. The display should peak later that night especially as morning twilight arrives. With the mild nights of summer your observing should be quite comfortable. So grab some blankets, refreshments and some friends and make a night of it camping under the stars.
Make sure you plan well ahead of time before sifting through the universe each evening. It is always nice knowing where and what to look for when you are out there in the dark. Hope you enjoy the night skies as I do. And don’t be afraid to pass on what you have learned to someone else who might enjoy it as well.
I couldn’t leave without mentioning the Comet “Neowise” that grazed us with its presence last month. One of the best showoffs by a comet in many a year. I was fortunate to be able to go down to South County with a number of friends at about 3,000 feet and take advantage of a great photo opportunity. I didn’t capture the best photo of the group, but it was just fun being able to fine it and take a picture of it. We must have had some fun; I didn’t get home until 5 a.m. If you missed it this time around, no worry, Comet Neowise will return once again……in less than 7,000 years. Just think of the quality of photo equipment we’ll have by then. I can’t wait.
Aug 1: Moon passes 15° south of Jupiter
Aug 2: Moon passes 1.1° south of Pluto
Aug 3: Full Moon
Aug 6: Moon passes 4° south of Neptune
Aug 9 : Moon passes 0.8° south of Mars
Aug 9 : Moon is at apogee (251,444 miles from Earth}
Aug 10 Moon passes 4° south of Uranus
Aug 11: Last-Quarter Moon
Aug 12: Perseid meteor shower peaks
Aug 15: Moon passes 4° north of Venus