Some days we journey to other worlds. Other days these worlds come to us. On the night of Aug 12/13, pieces of Comet Swift-Tuttle will streak through our atmosphere. We call this annual meteor shower the Perseids. During its 133-year journey from beyond Pluto in the Kuiper Belt to the Sun, Comet Swift-Tuttle leaves behind a stream of comet dust. Every year our world passes through this stream, and we see meteors seeming to radiate back to the constellation Perseus.
2015 is an especially good year to enjoy the Perseids since there will be no moonlight to interfere. The best time will be between midnight when our planet turns into the debris stream and 4 am when dawn begins. The forecast is for meteors to peak around 3 am.
It’s easy to enjoy the Perseids. Find a dark spot away from town lights. We are lucky to enjoy many areas of dark skies here in the Driftless Area. I’ve watched meteor showers from Wyalusing State Park as well as from a sandbar in the Wisconsin River. The Kickapoo Valley Reserve has especially dark skies and will be hosting a Perseids Party on August 12 with an indoor program at 8pm and outdoor viewing at 9pm.
You don’t need any special equipment such as binoculars, just your eyes. Keep the flashlights off and let your eyes dark adapt so you can see more. It’s best to be comfortable and looking up, so bring a reclining chair or blanket or inflatable mattress. Remember to dress warmly. Temperatures can drop even in the summer, and you won’t be moving around much. Don’t forget snacks. The direction you face really doesn’t matter since meteors can appear in any part of the sky. I like facing the northeast, so I can keep an eye on Perseus just below the “W” of Cassiopeia. If you face away from Perseus, you should see meteors with longer trails. Bring friends to see all the meteors you miss. You can expect to see a meteor every couple of minutes and maybe more often.
If the late night hours don’t suit you, you can also catch the Perseids in the evening. Sunset is a little after 8 and the sky is fully dark by 10. There are fewer meteors during this time, but the ones you see can be impressive. They are called “Earthgrazers” and they move more slowly and leave longer trails across the sky. You can also see the Perseids on the nights before and after August 12.
The meteors we see are only the size of seeds. They are so bright because they are coming in at over 100,000 mph. From our world here in the Driftless Area, we can watch these pieces of another world arriving and lighting up our skies.
John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.