The next few nights will bring one of the of the biggest astronomical events of the year, one that is so famous that even most non-astronomers know about it: the Perseid Meteor Shower, which will peak on the the night of August 11/12 (Saturday night/Sunday morning), which is ideal as most peoplre will be free from work in order to watch..
The good news: one does not have to wait for the weekend in order to start seeing meteors.
Despite what most of the news media may lead you to believe, there is a lot more to the meteor shower than the night of the peak. While most news outlets only focus on the peak night, the fact is that the Perseids are already blazing trails through the sky.
Unlike what may have been suggested by most non-astronomical news sources, the Perseids last for almost a month, about a week and a half on either side of the peak night. Why? The shower is caused by Earth running into a trail of space debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Think of it as a rainstorm. When driving into a rain shower, the rain does not come and go in a sudden burst. Likewise, the trail of cometary debris is the same way in that it starts very light, gets thicker until the deepest point is reached, and then starts lightening up again until the Earth passes completely through. The shower is called the Perseid because the meteors seem to radiate from the constellation Perseus.
Every August, Earth passes through the stretch of space junk, reaching the deepest concentration on the night of the 11/12th. According to some estimates, under ideal conditions (dark country skies), one can expect to see 100 meteors per hour come peak night. The best time to view is in the hours just before dawn as Perseus is at its highest then, about half way to Zenith in the Eastern sky. To improve odds of seeing meteors, travel out to the country to escape suburban/urban light domes.
So how about viewing tips?
First, plan to stay out a while, as it takes the human eye about 15 minutes to get optimal night vision capability. The bad news is that, even one bright flash of white light will wipe out night vision, requiring you to start the process all over again. Next, grab a lawn chair or, even better, a lounge-type chair. Trying to lean back with a straight-back lawn chair can be a pain in the neck, literally! Eyes ready for dark and with something to sit/lay on, settle in for a night of hopeful meteor watching (or at the very least, stargazing), just try not to fall asleep and don’t forget to dress for the weather and bring the bug spray
Besides meteors, tonight can be a great time for binocular viewing, owing to your use of a chair. Under suburban (maybe) or rural skies (definitely), a pair of medium power (10×50) binoculars can yield some stunning wide-angle sights. For someone truly dedicated, why not try and keep a tally of how many meteors you see for every complete hour?
Fortunately, the Moon will be out of the way at the time of the peak, which is good as the bright Moon will not be around to out-shine the meteors.
As the last part of the puzzle, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you. Hopefully, this being a multi-night event, at least one night will be clear near you.
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