Perseid 2013 meteor hunt: How to stargaze the ‘tears of a saint’

The annual Perseid meteor shower will reach its height starting Sunday night. Here are some tips for spotting these bits of rock and ice known as shooting stars.

Doug Murray/REUTERS
A Perseid meteor streaks above the skies of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in 2009. The annual Perseid meteor shower begins Sunday night.

For many Americans, catching a glimpse of the Perseid meteor shower, which will reach its height starting Sunday, is an annual summer rite. But what about when a clear, star-studded sky seems devoid of shooting stars right when the Perseids are supposedly turning up the heat?

Turns out meteor hunting isn’t as easy as it sounds, and can be anticlimactic. But, hey, it doesn’t take much, or long, to become a Perseid veteran.

Starting around July 17th every year and culminating around the 10th of August, the so-called Tears of St. Lawrence, named after the date of the Catholic saint’s martyrdom, burst through Earth’s outer layers, catch fire, and flare out at speeds around 25 miles per second, depending on trajectory.

The meteors are really icy space boulders left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, which the planet Earth, hurtling through space, crashes into, whence our atmosphere absorbs the comet flotsam. One of the highest meteor falling rates from the Perseids was 173 an hour, in 2009. The annual Perseid display was first documented in AD 36.

To be sure, getting up early and finding a dark field from which to stare up at the sky can be difficult by itself. At least parts of the sky must be fog and cloud-free. A risen moon, either waxing or waning, can make viewing difficult. Plus on a good, clear night, there’s a whole big sky to observe. Named the Perseids because that is the constellation from which they appear to emanate, the meteors can in fact be seen anywhere across the sky.

The key is to get comfortable on a blanket, on your back, and preferably find someone pleasant with whom to while away a few skygazing hours. Have a sip of something hot to ward off the dew.

Fortunately, this year the viewing odds are better than usual. At least in most parts of the US, the moon will be long below the horizon in the wee hours, leaving the sky dark for the hours when meteor hunting is the best.

What’s more, keep meteor-gazing simple, Andrew Fraknoi, an astronomy professor at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif., tells the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Perlman.

One rule is to not even bother with a telescope or binoculars. “Your eyes are the best tools, because the faint flashes can appear anywhere at all in the sky, and meteor showers are far more subtle than fireworks,” advises Mr. Fraknoi.

Even on the busiest Perseid nights, most of the meteors can’t be seen, largely because they burn out some 50 miles above Earth’s surface. But patience, as usual, tends to reward. Remember that they’re often as quick as a blink, and flash at a rate of about one a minute, or an expected 70 meteors an hour.

The best meteor hunting tip: Don’t expect to see one right away. Just lay back, relax, and a few tears of a saint will eventually zip out of the sky, trailing excited whispers. 

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