The Perseids meteor shower is one of the astronomical shows that attract a lot of interest, with up to 60 very bright shooting stars an hour at its peak on August 13 and 14. People in the southern hemisphere will have the best view and get a short break between moonset and sunrise to view the meteor shower at its peak. Though the meteor shower will last over a month ending on August 24.
Photo courtesy of the very honest man @ Flickr
The Perseids Meteor Shower
When John Denver sang "I've seen it raining fire in the sky." in his country classic Rocky Mountain High, he was singing about the Perseids meteor shower. The shower has also been referred to historically as the Tears of Saint Lawrence because its peak coincides with the Catholic Feast of Saint Lawrence.
However the Perseids, like other meteor showers, gets its astronomical name from the point in the sky that the shooting stars appear to radiate from, which is the constellation Perseus. Perseids meaning, the son of Perseus.
Image courtesy of NASA
These shooting stars are from the dust trail left by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years. As the comet approached the sun, it heats up and plumes of ice and dirt are sent out as a tail, leaving a dust cloud which will hang around for thousands of years. When the Earth runs into one of the clouds, we get a meteor shower.
When you see a shooting star, it is usually nothing more than a grain of dust burning up in the atmosphere. A fireball might be caused by something the size of a grain of sand. Because of the speed that they hit the atmosphere, they burn incredibly brightly.
Viewing the Perseids Meteor Shower
First of all, it is only optional to listen to John Denver songs while viewing the meteor shower. What really helps is getting away from the city and suburbs to avoid light pollution. Even in the suburbs or while the moon is still up, you might be lucky to spot one of the extra-bright shooting stars that the Perseids are famous for, but the less ambient light around the better.
Photo courtesy of John Fowler @ Flickr
Most meteor showers are best viewed from the hours of midnight to dawn, but with the Perseids, it is not completely visible from the southern hemisphere with the best viewing time just before dawn.
But this year, we in the antipodes get the best view because we will want to wait until moonset before viewing. In the northern hemisphere, because it is summer, the sun will rise before the moon sets. While Downunder, we will have a window to really see the shooting stars.
Once you are in a nice dark place, make sure you turn off all lights. Flashlights and campfires can be a problem, as can phones and camera screens. Be careful of smartwatches, as they can turn on if you tap them or move your arm too quickly. It will take about 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust, so it can be a good idea to sit or lie down with a great view of the sky.
The radiant point is the constellation Perseus and because it is low on the horizon or below, you want to know the general location of the radiant so that you can focus on that region of the sky. You don't need to find Perseus to see his sons but you can download an astronomy app for your phone. I like Sky Map, but there are many others you can use.
For people in the southern part of the world, normally to get the best view of the Perseids, you want to look towards the northern sky just before dawn. Luckily around the country, this will also be when the moon sets. Below are the moonset and sunrise times for the morning of August 14, though you should check the times for other days.
Brisbane: Moonset 5:23 am Sunrise 6:20 am
Sydney: Moonset 5:45 am Sunrise 6:36 am
Melbourne: Moonset 6:20 am Sunrise 7:07 am
Adelaide: Moonset 6:09 am Sunrise 6:58 am
Perth: Moonset 6:06 am Sunrise 6:54 am
Photographing Shooting Stars
Night sky photography is always a fun thing to do if you have a good camera such as a DLSR or Mirrorless camera. You will also need a tripod to keep your camera steady and your fastest lens. Oh, you will need one more thing, a great deal of luck.
Most people with a good camera will have a telephoto zoom lens as part of the package. While these lenses are great for most situations they tend to be a little slower, with even a good zoom lens being around a F/3.5. This can work but if you have a faster lens, that is one with a smaller F value, such as a F/2.5 or F/2, it will be better. These are your fixed focal length or prime lenses and the good news is that they are usually much cheaper than a zoom lens.
Photo courtesy of Arup Malakar @ Flickr
Set your camera on the tripod and point it at the sky. Shooting stars are moving too fast to see one and photograph it, so the strategy is normally to take a series of exposures hoping that you will catch one. Typically you want an exposure of 10 to 25 seconds. The longer the exposure the more chance of a shooting star, but the brighter the background starfield will be. It is worth trying a few photos of the night sky beforehand to see which setting is best.
Normally the Perseids is best viewed in the northern part of the world, but this year, because of the timing of the moonset and sunrise, we will have a great view in Australia if you are prepared to brave cold hours of winter just before dawn.