The Perseids are the debris from the Swift-Tuttle comet. This comet makes a 133 year orbit and leaves a trail of ejected particles in its wake. Many of the rocks and debris have been there for over 1000 years. That is until of course Earth passes through the cloud.
The Perseid meteor shower is named because the shooting stars seem to originate in the constellation Perseus. The name itself, Perseids, actually means The sons of Perseus. An alternative name is the Tears of Saint Lawrence, because the peak of the meteor shower coincides with the Catholic Feast of Saint Lawrence.
Image Courtesy of NASA
To add to the fame of the meteor shower, the legendary country signer, John Denver, has also sung about these shooting stars. In the song Rocky Mountain High he refers to them with the lyric I've seen it raining fire in the sky.
Just in case you are wondering if we should be worried about all these meteors hitting the Earth, most are no bigger than a grain of sand. However their immense speed means that they burn brightly as they hit Earth's atmosphere.
When to observe the Perseids
The peak activity is between the 9th and 14th of August between 11 pm and 4:30 am. The meteor shower will be visible from mid July through the end of August. At it's peak this year you should expect to see between 50 to 80 shooting stars per hour. This is down from the peak in 2009 when it was 173 per hour. Back in 1863 the peak was over 200 per hour.
Photo courtesy of Jacek Halicki @ Wikimedia Commons
This year's observation peak won't be that good, because of a waxing gibbous moon (the moon will be partly full and getting brighter over the days) earlier in the evening. While the moon is out you are still likely to see a few of the brighter shooting stars, but your best bet is to try and view them after the moon has set. Many people will choose to rise early and catch the meteor shower before dawn.
If you want to observe the meteor shower on other days, you can keep track of the moon and the location of the constellation Perseus using a number of apps that you can download to your phone or tablet. You use this app by pointing your screen at the sky and they will show you the location of constellations and other major features in the night sky. I have recently been using one called Sky Map, but there are many others out there that you can download.
The Perseids are one of the brightest regular meteor showers, but you still want to get as far away from city lights as possible as there is usually far too much light pollution to see any shooting stars. Some places to try are beach areas that back onto bushland. You can try any bushland pockets around your city but it is better to head out of the city. It is only when you start to look at the sky do you realise who much light pollution there actually is.
The trick to viewing shooting stars is patience. Ideally you want to find a place to sit or lie down looking up. Avoid any sort of light. These means, no checking your phone every few minutes for Facebook updates. Find the constellation Perseus but don't focus on that area rather you want to be looking at where the meteors will be going. Just relax and keep searching the skies.
Photographing a meteor shower
Photographing shooting stars is not that easy, but the Perseids are one of the brightest regular meteor showers, so it gives you the best chance. You will need a good camera, such as a DLSR or mirrorless camera, a tripod and lots of patience. The real secret is having a fast lens. A standard lens will usually have a lowest (fastest) setting of F/3.5 (the lower the setting the wider the aperture and so so the faster it will be.) If this is your fastest lens, then use that as the Perseids are famous for being very bright. However ideally you need at least an F/2 lens.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stawarz @ Flickr
Setup your camera on a tripod as you will want to use an exposure of 10-25 seconds (play around with it and see). Use a remote control or your camera's timer to avoid any camera shake from pressing the button. Now the fun starts. Aim your camera at the area of the sky where you are seeing the most meteors and take lots of photos. With any luck you will snap a shot with a meteor in it.