On the night of Friday, August 11th, from just after it gets dark out until dawn the next morning, you can observe the annual Perseid meteor shower, which is usually one of the best meteor showers of the year. Unfortunately, this year’s conditions won’t be ideal, because a bright waxing gibbous Moon will interfere. Whenever there’s a bright Moon in the sky, 90 percent of the fainter meteors are hidden from view. But it’s still worth watching, because some meteors could be bright.
Here’s what you do. Just go outside late Friday night until dawn Saturday morning, after midnight you’ll usually see more meteors.
- Rule #1: "Make sure it’s clear out," because, if it’s clouded over or raining you won’t see one single meteor.
- Rule #2: "Get as far away from city lights as possible." Because even though you may see a handful of the brightest meteors from city locations, nevertheless, city lights, like Moonlight, flood the sky with so much sky glow that it can hide meteors from view.
- Rule #3: "Observe while lying on the ground on a blanket or in a lawn chair."
- Rule #4: "Stay outside for at least a couple of hours, preferably after midnight, and have plenty of patience."
If you follow these rules, you should see several meteors per hour. Simply lay back and constantly scan the sky and, usually when you least expect it, a meteor or even two will zip across the sky.
Now, although some astronomy periodicals will tell you that you may see 60 meteors per hour which would boil down to about one a minute, meteors really don’t operate on a time schedule. You may see ten of them in two minutes and then have to wait for 20 minutes to see more. But that’s the fun of it, because each meteor is a total surprise. Now, although meteors look like and are often called "shooting stars," nothing could be farther from the truth. You see, meteors are nothing more than tiny pieces of comet debris, comet litter, which slam into the Earth’s atmosphere at such high speeds, over 135 thousand miles per hour, that friction with the Earth’s atmosphere causes them to burn up and makes the gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere which surround the speck glow as the speck plunges toward Earth.
So get thee outside late next Friday evening and early Saturday morning. And, every time you see a meteor streak across the sky, remind yourself that what you’re actually seeing is a tiny piece of a comet plunging to its fiery death, which is one more good reason to Keep Looking Up!