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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space and Everything In-Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

How to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower from anywhere


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Monday, August 13, 2018, 9:09 PM - Get outside and look up! Possibly the stargazing highlight of the entire 2018 summer season, the Perseid Meteor Shower, is still visible tonight!

Keep an eye on the sky, as space debris dating back to the birth of our solar system blazes bright trails across the stars!

Right now, Earth is passing through a wide stream of meteoroids in space - small bits of ice, dust and rock orbiting the Sun, after being left behind by the passage of a massive ball of ice, dust and rock, known as Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

When these meteoroids encounter Earth's atmosphere, they streak through the sky, producing bright flashes of light that we call the Perseid Meteor Shower.


Earth passes through the debris stream of Comet Swift-Tuttle in July and August of each year. Credit: meteorshowers.org/Scott Sutherland

THE PERSEIDS

The Perseid Meteor Shower is probably the most well-known of all the yearly meteor showers, since it happens at a time of year when it's easiest to stay up late to watch.

It is truly exceptional, however, for two reasons:

1) It is one of only three yearly meteor showers where its possible to see up to 100 meteors per hour (the other two are in autumn and winter), and
2) the Perseids produce the greatest number of bright fireball meteors, compared to every other meteor shower we know.

A fireball meteor is one that shines exceptionally bright as it streaks across the sky. While most meteors are caused by something about the size of a grain of sand, a fireball happens when something more pebble-sized hits the top of the atmosphere.

Although comparisons are made to the brightness of specific objects in the night sky (ie: Venus), think of it this way: fireballs are meteors that are so bright, they can be seen by people watching from some of the worst possible light pollution conditions.

This is true even if you're stuck in a big city during the event, and can only see a vaguely indigo sky, along with a hand-full of the brightest stars and planets. These aren't necessarily going to be the ones that light up the entire night sky (those are comparatively rare), so you still need to be watching at the time, and looking in the right direction, of course.

Click below to view a particularly good Perseid meteor fireball, captured by the University of Toronto Scarborough Observatory, at 1:30 a.m. ET, Sunday, August 12.



Keep an eye on their Twitter account over the next few nights, to continue seeing more meteors from this shower. Be mindful, though, that not everything the UTSC Observatory camera picks up is a meteor. If the bright streak changes course, or streaks across the entire view in less than a second, it's very likely that the source of that streak is a flying insect reflecting local light sources.

Meteors caught by the camera will be very short lived, making only a short streak across the view, and may actually produce a tiny explosion at the end.

WHEN TO WATCH

The shower actually runs from July 17 to August 24, as it takes over a month for Earth to completely traverse the width of the meteoroid stream left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

It isn't until the days leading up to the shower's peak, on August 12-13, though, that things get really good.

Last year's peak Perseids were a bit of a disappointment, due to the bright gibbous Moon in the sky at the time. Since even the light from the Moon is enough to spoil our nightvision, the brighter the Moon is during the meteor shower, the fewer meteors we see. Only the brightest of them get through.


The Perseids radiant, at roughly midnight on August 12-13, 2018. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

This year, with the peak of the shower occurring on Sunday night and Monday morning, just a day after the New Moon, the meteors will have very little natural competition in the sky that night. So, this is exceptionally good timing.

Add to this, the fact that the meteor shower's peak favours North America, so the shower will deliver its absolute highest meteor rates when it is darkest here that night.

The absolute best time to go see the meteor shower is when the radiant is highest in the sky, which is in the hours leading up to dawn, on Monday. Gong out at any time that night should be great, though, depending on a few conditions.

Read on for how to get the most out of this event!

HOW TO WATCH

Check your sky conditions

The first thing to consider when planning to watch a meteor shower is to keep track of the weather.

Keep checking your local forecast for nightly sky conditions, and be sure to check back here, closer to the weekend, for a cloud forecast for the night of the peak.

Escape light pollution

Next, you need to get away from city lights, The farther away you can get, the better. This is due to light pollution - the glowing 'dome' seen over cities at night, which 'washes out' the stars and other objects in space, only letting the brightest shine through to be seen from the ground.


This map shows the impacts of light pollution across Canada and the northern United States. Although large areas of Canada's north are free from light pollution, our cities, strung across the southern parts of the country, light up the night sky. Credit: Falchi et al., Sci. Adv., Jakob Grothe/NPS contractor, Matthew Price/CIRES

Yes, you can see bright fireballs, even through light pollution. Yes, the Perseids have the greatest number of fireballs of any other meteor shower. Regardless of these two facts, to get the full effect from this event, you really need to watch from under a clear, dark sky.

For most regions of Canada, getting out from under light pollution is simply a matter of driving outside of your city, town or village.

In some areas, though, such as southwestern and central Ontario, and along the St Lawrence River, the concentration of light pollution is very high. Getting far enough outside of one city to escape its light pollution, unfortunately, tends to put you under the light pollution dome of the next city over. In these areas, there are specific dark sky preserves - places that have taken steps to limit light pollution - however, a skywatcher's best bet for dark skies is usually to drive north.

Related: What light pollution is doing to city views of the Milky Way



Once you've verified you'll have clear skies, and you've escaped from urban light pollution, stop somewhere safe and dark. Provincial parks, even if you're confined to the parking lot, are usually an excellent place for this.

Adjust to the dark

Give your eyes between 30-45 minutes to adapt to the dark.

During that time, avoid ALL bright sources of light - street lights, headlights, and especially your cellphone screen. Even brief exposure to bright light can delay your adaptation to the dark.

If you need to use your phone, consider lowering the amount of blue light your screen gives off (there's often a setting for this), and reduce the screen's brightness. There are also apps that put your phone into "night mode", which shifts the screen colours into the red. Once you've done that, checking your phone while skywatching won't impact on your nightvision as much.

Get comfortable and look up

The best way to watch a meteor shower is to bring along a chair to sit in, or pack a blanket to spread out on the grass, so that you can lie down. Then, look straight up into the sky.

That may seem obvious, but quite often observers will focus simply on the location of the meteor shower radiant. While that is where the meteors appear to originate from, the meteors themselves can show up at any distance from the radiant. So, if you look only towards the northeast, you will likely miss many meteors that happen beyond your peripheral vision.

Looking straight up will allow you to take in as much of the sky as possible, all at once, so that you (hopefully) won't miss a thing.

Share the experience

Seeing bright meteors flashing above our heads is a very cool experience, but it's much better if you have someone to 'ooo' and 'aah' with.

So, bring along some family and/or friends to share the experience.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT MARS

While you're watching for meteors streaking across the sky, be sure to check out Mars, which is still at its brightest until 2035.


Mars shines brightly in the sky on the night of August 12-13, along with Saturn. Credit: Stellarium/Scott Sutherland

It's been over a week now since Mars Opposition, and the closest approach of Mars in roughly 30 years, but Mars is still closer to Earth now than it has been for the past 15 years, and it's closer than it will be for the next 17 years. So, it's still a great time to get out and check it out.

Sources: RASC | NASA | With files from The Weather Network

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