If it’s clear where you are in the UK late tonight (or anywhere in northern hemisphere), keep an eye out for more shooting stars than usual, as we are approaching the peak of the annual Perseid (“purr-see-id”) meteor shower. You might have heard about this already, because there are lots of sensationalist memes and “alerts” and doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter about this, some of them making quite outrageous predictions for “thousands of shooting stars falling from the sky!” But the truth is rather less dramatic…
Basically, although tonight is the main night, over the next few nights, if you have a clear sky around midnight and into the early hours before dawn, you have a good chance of seeing more shooting stars than usual. The obvious question at this point is: “How many???” Well, the actual number you see will depend on a few things, mainly how long you are willing to watch for them, and where you watch for them from. If you live in a town or city, you *might* catch a handful, if you’re lucky, just standing on your doorstep in your slippers after dark, looking at the small patch of sky visible above your garden, but because of the small area of sky you’ll be looking at, and because of all the lights around you, you’ll be lucky if you see more than a dozen or so, probably. However, if you live somewhere less populated – or if you make a bit of an effort and get away from home to somewhere less populated, somewhere away from streetlights and illuminated buildings, and find somewhere darker, somewhere with a much “bigger” sky, you’ll have a better chance of seeing more shooting stars – common sense, really! Then you will have a good chance of seeing a lot more shooting stars than usual.
Just be aware that you will not be seeing a meteor shower as it’s usually shown on TV or in a film – when bright shooting stars zip across the sky one after the other, barely a second between them, sometimes half a dozen skipping across the sky at the same time. During a *real* meteor shower it’s typical to have to wait several minutes between shooting stars, and you might even go ten minutes or longer during the lulls. But then you might see several in quick succession, it’s totally random and unpredictable. But that’s part of the fun!
By the way, if you do go out and look for the shooting stars, after a while you’ll notice that they all appear to be coming out of one part of the sky, from the east – actually, from just beneath an easy to spot “W” of stars, a constellation called Cassiopeia. Although they can appear in any part of the sky – above you, behind you, off to your left or right – if you tracked them all back you’d see they are shooting out of the constellation of Perseus… hence the name of the shower, The Perseids…
As for how bright they will be, well, you will see the odd really bright one and a few might be strikingly bright, but most won’t be and you will see a lot of them “out of the corner of your eye”. This is an astronomical event you don’t need a telescope to enjoy because telescopes are utterly useless for watching meteors! Your naked eye is all you need. If you have a pair of binoculars tho, take them with you because the very brightest meteors can sometimes leave behind a ghostly, glowing trail in the sky, which can linger for several minutes after the shooting star itself has faded, twisting and coiling in the upper atmosphere before fading. But seeing any of those would be a bonus, don’t count on it!
So, tonight is the main night, but tomorrow night, and the night after, go out around midnight, wrap up warm, find as dark a place as possible, with as big a sky as possible, stay out as long as you can manage, and just enjoy whatever Nature gives us. You won’t see a sky full of blazing shooting stars, but you will see at least a few that will make you go “Wow!” and maybe even a couple that will take your breath away.
EAS PERSEID WATCH EVENTS
Amazingly the forecast for tonight is for a clear sky across Cumbria, so members of the Eddington Astronomical Society will be heading out to observe the meteor shower. Because our membership is so scattered, and because different people prefer different observing sites, we are not having a *single* meteor watching event as such. But it is suggested that members who want to watch the shower in the company of others consider going to the following observing sites we have used before, I’m sure they’ll meet someone there!
HELSINGTON CHURCH: This is a very popular EAS observing site, but it’s not that good for watching this meteor shower because Perseus will be behind the church there, with trees in the way too. But if you go up you will definitely see more shooting stars than you would from home, just because it’s quite dark up there and offers a good view of the sky.
ORTON SCAR: basically go through the village of Orton, keep going up until you’re on the top of the hill there, and look for the big gravelly car park on the right hand side. There is a great view of a Big Sky up there, and it is dark too, so I’m sure there will be some EAS members there tonight.
OLD HUTTON CHURCH: If you don’t fancy driving all the way to Orton, just five or so minutes’ drive out of Kendal, through Oxenholme, this church car park offers a surprisingly dark and good view of the sky within easy reach of town. Several members have already arranged to meet up here tonight, from eleven, to watch the meteor shower, and you’d be welcome to join us. Just be aware that there are houses nearby so you will have to be quiet, no shrieks of “Ooh!” and “WOW!!” as bright meteors dash across the sky! 😉
Wherever you go – good luck!