How to spot shooting stars from the Perseids meteor shower
The Perseids meteor shower is one of the highlights of the astronomical year. While it can be a little harder to view in Australia, on August 12 to 13 you can still have a great chance to catch the peak as 1 shooting star a minute flies across the northern sky. Here is when, where and how to view this meteor shower.
Photo courtesy of John Fowler @ Flickr
About the Perseids Meteor Shower
The Perseids is has a number of claims to fame. Firstly it is regularly one of the best meteor showers of the year. It also featured in a John Denver song, Rocky Mountain High with the lyric "I've seen it raining fire in the sky." It is also referred to as the Tears of Saint Lawrence because the shower peaks on the Catholic Feast of Saint Lawrence.
The modern name, Perseids, like other meteor showers, comes from the point in the sky that the shooting stars appear to radiate from. For this meteor shower, it is the constellation Perseus. The name Perseids means, the son of Perseus.
Image courtesy of NASA
Almost all meteor showers are caused by the Earth passing through the dust trail left behind by a comet. The Perseids are the debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which makes a 133-year orbit around the sun. As the comet, which is basically a big ball of dirty ice, approaches the sun, it gets hots and spews out a great "tail" of water and dust which can hang around for thousands of years.
Most shooting stars are little more than a grain of dust. The big fireballs might even be as large as a grain of sand. When they hit the Earth's atmosphere, or more accurately, the Earth plows into them, the are moving so fast through the atmosphere, they burn hot and bright.
Viewing the Meteor Shower
The Perseids shooting stars are usually fairly bight, but you still want get out of the city to avoid light pollution, otherwise you are only likely to spot the occasionally very bright shooting star. This can include beaches and bushland areas not far from the city, but the further out you go, the better.
Like most meteor showers, the best time to view them is from the hours of midnight to dawn. This is because of the angle that the Earth hits the comet's dust trail.
So find a nice dark place, turn off all lights. This means, no flashlights, no phones, smart watches, camera screens or even fires. Sit, or often better yet, lie down so that your neck is supported. If you stand and look at the sky, chances are your neck will become sore very fast. It takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to become fully adjusted, after which spotting shooting stars should be easy.
As said before, the radiant point is the constellation Perseus, but the shooting stars will radiate out from that point, which means they are likely to appear anywhere except the radiant point. However as the radiant point will be close to or below the horizon in most parts of Australia, it is good to find out where it is and look in that direction as most of the shooting stars will be near that point. There are a number of phone apps you can use to do this. I use one called Sky Map, but there are many others.
Photo courtesy of the very honest man @ Flickr
Best Viewing Times
The information below is for the night of August 12 and the morning of August 13. Time and location is critical to view the Perseids as the radiant is so close to or below the horizon, with the best time just before dawn.
Viewing will actually be better in Australia in the lead up to the peak of the meteor shower than at the peak itself, because the radiant point will be higher in the sky. You should look to the northern sky as you will see shooting stars mostly in this area.
In Brisbane and Perth on the peak night, the radiant point will peak up above the horizon a couple of hours before dawn. In Brisbane dawn will be 6:21 am and in Perth, it will be 6:55 am.
For Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide the radiant point won't be visible on August 12 and 13, but you should still see shooting stars in the northern sky. Sunrise for these cities will be; Sydney 6:37 am, Melbourne, 7:08 am and Adelaide 6:59 am.
Photographing Shooting Stars
Photographing shooting stars is a nice little challenge if you have a good camera, such as a DLSR or Mirrorless Camera, a good lens and a tripod. However, success also requires a fair amount of luck as shooting stars are faint, moving fast and can appear anywhere in the sky.
You will need to use the fastest lens that you have. Typically most people will have a F/3.5 lens, but it would be better if you have a faster lens, such as a F/2.5 or F/2.
Set up your camera on a tripod. It is best if you configure it to take a serious of exposures, just in the hope that a shooting star will pass in front when you do this. Typically you want a 10 to 25 second exposure. The longer the exposure, the more of the star field you will capture, but this might mean you don't end up with a clear shot of the shooting star.
While the Perseids is not fully visible to us here in the southern hemisphere, if you get up in the hours before dawn's first light, you will be able to see at least half of the shooting stars in the northern sky. Definitely, one not to be missed for early morning risers.