Get ready to venture outside, relax in a comfortable recliner, wrap yourself inside a warm blanket (include a friend?), and gaze into the night sky.
Why? The Perseid meteor shower peaks the night of Aug. 12 through early the next morning. The best viewing hours span from midnight to 4 a.m.
The Perseids are the year’s most popular and reliable display of meteors. And luckily, North America offers the world’s best viewing seats.
If you can’t stay up late Wednesday, a higher than normal number of meteors remain visible two to three nights before and after the peak.
This week’s almost moonless nights promise to keep the mid-August sky darker than observers have experienced during recent years.
And with so many families enjoying their final summer vacations miles from city lights, the Perseids are primed to showcase some memorable sights.
Most of this week’s meteors are called the Perseids because they radiate across the sky from an area near the upside down “V” shaped constellation called Perseus. This nest of stars rises in the northeast before midnight.
The largest number of meteors is visible after midnight because that is when the Earth’s night side plunges head-on through the densest swarm of dust to pebble size meteor-making debris. This space debris is called meteoroids.
The ancient material creating the Perseid meteors originates from Comet Swift-Tuttle. This icy comet sweeps through the warm, inner solar system every 130 years leaving behind a narrow,
elongated stream of meteoroids on every passage.
During the Earth’s yearly orbit around the sun, it begins to plow through the outer edge of this debris starting in early July, passes through the densest portion about Aug. 12, and then exits all by late August.
Under a dark, non-hazy sky, tens of meteors are commonly visible each hour. The average meteor shines with the brightness of stars making up the Big Dipper.
Of course, more meteors are counted when family and friends share in the night time watch.
Short and frequent meteors are visible when looking to the northeast toward the shower’s radiant. Longer meteor trails are commonly seen overhead and to the south and west.
Excitement erupts when the brightest meteors, called fireballs, suddenly singe an orange-white path down the Milky Way and across the constellations of late summer and early autumn.
Fireballs are spectacular. They resemble fiery stones skipping across the heavens.
During some past years, when the sky was exceptionally clear and dark, I’ve counted almost 100 meteors an hour — some casting shadows across the Mid-Columbia landscape.
Perseid meteors swiftly plunge into the upper atmosphere at speeds of about 40 miles per second. The rocky material creating meteors rapidly slow down as it slams into air molecules found in
the upper atmosphere, disintegrating in a flash of light popularly known as a “shooting star.”
Most meteors burn up at an altitude of about 60 miles.
However, if you spot a meteor close to the horizon, it could be 200 to 300 miles away — visible to other observers across the Pacific Northwest.
The best meteor observing takes place far from city and neighbor lights. If you can’t escape light pollution, observe from the darkest corner of your backyard, park, or school yard and patiently watch the darkest portion of the sky.
Want to join others observing the night sky and learning more about the Hubble Space Telescope and the latest discoveries of Pluto?
On Aug. 14, drive to the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) Hanford facility north of Richland to join the public counting meteors and exploring the heavens using telescopes provided by the Tri-City Astronomy Club.
The LIGO event begins at 8 p.m., when Dr. Andrea Dobson, professor of astronomy at Whitman College, gives the talk “Hubble’s Greatest Hits.”
Dobson will share some of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic images and summarize scientific discoveries made possible during the scope’s 25 year history.
She will also show recent images of Pluto taken by the “New Horizons” spacecraft that recently flew past the solar system’s only demoted planet.
Afterwards everyone is invited outside to enjoy the star gaze that continues until 1 a.m. Bring the family. Restrooms are available in the LIGO auditorium.
For more information and directions, search online under “LIGO Hanford.”