This year’s Perseid meteor shower is expected to be unusually intense. Here’s where — and how — to see the show.
The stage is set for a celestial fireworks show over the next few nights, as the annual Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak and the clouds that have been hanging over Western Washington vanish.
Astronomers are predicting a particularly intense rain of shooting stars this year, with as many as 160 to 200 per hour — double the rate in an ordinary year.
“It’s always a good show,” said Stephanie Pahl Anderson, president of the Seattle Astronomical Society. “This year, it should be excellent.”
The weather, always a wild card for stargazing in the Pacific Northwest, is equally auspicious.
“Thursday and Friday nights should be really good conditions for looking at the sky,” said Kirby Cook, Seattle-based science and operations officer for the National Weather Service. “It will be warm, too, so that’s a double ‘yay.’?”
While Thursday night is the peak, the shower actually started in mid-July and will continue though the weekend. Local astronomers got a preview at a recent star party on Table Mountain, in northeastern Washington.
“They just lit up the sky,” Anderson said. “That’s going to get more intense closer to the peak.”
The Perseid meteor shower occurs when the Earth passes through a swath of dustlike debris, thousands of miles wide, left in the wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet itself, which orbits the sun every 133 years, will be nowhere in sight. The bursts of light are created when tiny bits of comet dust plunge into the Earth’s atmosphere and are incinerated.
“They are little bits about the size of sand grains,” said University of Washington astronomer Woody Sullivan.
The grains are traveling at a blistering 132,000 mph and can reach temperatures of up to 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit as they streak across the sky, according to NASA. Because they burn up about 50 miles above the planet, the meteors pose no danger to Earth.
The shower is called the Perseids because many of the shooting stars appear to originate in the northeastern sky near the constellation named after the warrior Perseus, celebrated in Greek mythology for slaying the snake-headed Medusa.
In most years, the Earth just grazes the outer edge of the band of dust shed by comet Swift-Tuttle. But this year, it appears that the gravitation pull of the giant planet Jupiter is distorting the dust band, so the Earth will pass through a denser swath of debris, resulting in an “outburst.”
The last outburst year was 2009.
The prime time for meteor watching is always between about 1 and 5 a.m., Sullivan said. The reason is what he calls the “bug-on-the-windshield” phenomenon.
“After midnight is when you are situated on the leading edge of the Earth as it goes around in its orbit,” he explained. Just like the windshield of a car barreling through the night gets spattered with more insects than the back window, the leading edge of the Earth’s atmosphere gets splattered with more meteors.
After midnight is also preferable this year because the moon sets at about 1 a.m.
While it’s possible to see meteors in the city, the best views are where the skies are darkest.
“If you can even get out to the suburbs or a little beyond, it’s much better,” Anderson said. “Anywhere where there aren’t direct lights right in your face.”
If you can’t get out of the city, try a park or the shore of Puget Sound or Lake Washington, she advised. Or hop on a ferry. “I think that would be perfect, on the deck.”
See the accompanying graphic for a few suggested viewing sites in Seattle and beyond. You can find more at Alice’s Astro Info. (http://www.alicesastroinfo.com/seattle-stargazing/)
Wherever you go, Anderson says, comfort is key. She prefers to scan the skies from a reclining lawn chair.
“Lean back so you can see as much of the sky as possible. Take lots of blankets and warm beverages and just sit out there for hours.”