Bright and plentiful shooting stars peaking on August 11/12
The Perseids Meteor shower is one of the astronomical highlights of the year. Perseids shooting stars are both bright and plentiful. They will be visible from the middle of July through to the end of August, with the peak on the night of August 11 and the morning of August 12 bringing 1 meteor per minute.
Photo of a Perseids meteor courtesy of ESO/S Guisard @ wikimedia
Other than being one of the best shooting star shows of the year, the Perseids has other claims to fame. 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.
The name of the meteor shower, the Perseids, like other meteor showers, comes from the point in the sky that the shooting stars appear to radiate from. In this case, the constellation Perseus. The name itself, Perseids, actually means The Sons of Perseus.
An alternative name for the meteor shower is the Tears of Saint Lawrence, because the peak of the meteor shower coincides with the Catholic Feast of Saint Lawrence.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris of a comet. The Perseids come from the Swift-Tuttle comet that makes a 133-year orbit around the sun while often passing close to the Earth. As the comet approaches the sun, a stream of gas, dust and sand are ejected. This can hang around in space for a thousand years until we, riding the planet Earth, crash into them.
Each shooting star is rarely more than just a grain of dust. But the speed at which they hit the Earth's atmosphere causes them to glow hot and bright. The really bright fireballs might be as large as a grain of sand.
Viewing the Meteor Shower
The Perseids is one of the regularly bright meteor showers, but you still can't really view it from within the confines of a city. Instead, you need to escape the light pollution found in most urban areas. Some places where you can do this near the city include beaches and bushland areas.
Time and patience is usually the key to viewing meteor showers. You find a quiet spot to view the sky. Sit or lie down so that your neck is supported. Because if you spend too much time looking at the sky your neck will become sore very quickly. Get rid of any light sources. So no mobile phones, and if you plan to photograph the meteor shower, turn off the screen on your camera. It takes up to 20 minutes for your eyes to become fully adjusted to the dark, but you should be able to spot them before then.
While the radiant point of the shooting stars is in the constellation Perseus, this is not the best place to look because the meteors will radiate in all directions. Really they will be visible everywhere except at the centre of the radiant point.
Photo of a Perseids Meteor courtesy of Brocken Inaglory @ Wikimedia
The information below is for the night of August 11 and the morning of August 12. Generally speaking though, the best time to look for shooting stars is from midnight to dawn. So you don't have to stay up late to spot them, only get up early (I am not sure which one is harder.) Remember to take into account the moon when planning the time you will go shooting star spotting.
Unlike the Delta Aquarids, we don't get that good a view of Perseids in the Southern Hemisphere, but they are still visible close to the horizon to the north and north east.
At the peak, there will be a waning moon for most of the night, which could cause some viewing issues. As the moon will be in the west in the early hours of the morning and the shooting stars in the north east, you should still get a good view of the meteors, especially the brighter ones.
In Sydney and Brisbane, the moon will pass its highest point at 3 am, so it will be better to get up in the early hours, such as 4 or 5 am to watch the skies for an hour or two before the lightening sky blocks them out.
In Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth the moons high point will be a little later at 3:30 am. While of course is great, because the hours before dawn is when the shooting stars will be at their most numerous.
Photographing Shooting Stars
It isn't easy to photograph shooting stars. They are moving fast and can appear anywhere in the night sky, so it comes down to luck. But the Perseids are one of the brightest of year with 1 shooting star a minute, which helps.
You will need a good camera, such as a DLSR or mirrorless camera. In addition, a tripod is essential. Use the fastest lens that you have. Typically most people will have a F/3.5 lens, but you should try and use something faster like an F/2. If you don't have a fast lens, there is no harm in trying anyway.
Photo Courtesy of Andrew Stawarz @ Flickr 2
Typically you will setup the camera for 10-25 second exposures and set the camera to keep taking photos. If you take enough photos there is a good chance one will capture a meteor. You probably want to play around with the settings a little. Often a longer exposure will mean that you will capture more of the star field, but that might obscure the shooting star.
I believe that I was fortunate enough to capture a bright Perseid last weekend.
We were taking photos out at Nudgee when a long, slow burning and sparkling meteor fell in front of us. My shot only picked up the final light trail, but it was amazing to witness with our eyes!