Perseids Driftless Dark Skies

Graphic from Sky & Telescope

The Perseid Meteor Shower is one of my favorite skywatching events of the year. And the timing makes it even more special in 2023. The peak occurs the night of August 12/13. That’s a Saturday, so it’s easier to stay out late. And there is no moonlight, so we can see more “shooting
stars” in the darker sky. Enjoying the Perseids is also pretty easy. Find a dark spot away from town lights. Put away flashlights and phones so your eyes can adapt to the dark. Make yourself comfortable with a reclining chair or air mattress or blanket. Bring along your jacket or hoodie or sleeping bag so you’re warm when the temperatures drop. Remember snacks and warm beverages. And invite your friends and family to share the view and keep you company.

Meteors happen when Earth passes through the debris stream left by comets as they orbit the Sun. You will see the most meteors after midnight (when our planet turns into that debris stream) and before 4am (when the sky begins to brighten at dawn). But evening can also be a great time for Perseids. There are fewer meteors, but the ones we do see (“Earthgrazers”) move more slowly and leave longer trails. Sunset is around 8:10pm and the sky is fully dark by 10pm. You can also enjoy Perseids on the nights before and after the August 12/13 predicted peak.

The direction you face really doesn’t matter since meteors can show up in any part of the sky. I like to face away from the light dome of any nearby cities or towns so I am seeing darker skies. The trails left behind by Perseids will point back to the “radiant” in the constellation Perseus rising in the northeast below the “W” of Cassiopeia. There may be longish periods when you don’t see any meteors followed by times of more intense activity. On average, you may see one every couple of minutes. Your friends will let you know about the ones you miss.

While you’re waiting, be sure to enjoy the other wonders of the summer sky. Saturn rises in the east around 8:45pm followed by even brighter Jupiter around 11:45pm. The Milky Way will be streaming from Sagittarius the Archer low in the south, through Cygnus the Swan high in the east, to Cassiopeia the Queen low in the northeast. Watch for The Pleiades (“The Seven Sisters”) rising in the east around 11:45pm. And just before the dawn’s early light around 4am, you will be greeted by Orion the Hunter coming up in the east.

Starsplitters will be sharing a public program at Wyalusing State Park at 8:30pm on August 12. Wildcat Mountain State Park is hosting an astronomy program by Northwest Suburban Astronomers at 8pm on August 12. Wherever you are, I hope you have a memorable time enjoying the Perseids!

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, with the International Dark-Sky Association as an Advocate, and the International Astronomical Union as a Dark Sky 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.

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