In difficult political times such as these, let the starry heavens above quell the turmoil within you. The stars were there before Brexit, and they will remain there after. For a few billion years at least.
In fact, tonight would actually be a particularly excellent time for this, because the Perseid meteor shower is currently happening right above our heads.
One of the more reliable astronomical events, the shower occurs for about five weeks every year. It’s been happening since July 17 this year, and is set to continue until August 24, but things will really hit their peak early in the morning of Tuesday, August 13 at around 03:14 BST, after the moon sets.
Of course, you’re likely thinking three things now: one, why does it happen? Two, how do I watch it? And three, how do I get the perfect celestial flick for the Gram?
What’s actually going on?
The Perseids, named because they appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus, are dust grains thrown from the tail of the 26-kilometre-wide Swift-Tuttle comet, which orbits the Sun every 133 years. As the bits of comet debris fall into Earth’s atmosphere they burn up – or more dramatically explode in a fireball – causing the distinctive streaks of light in the sky.
“This dust is left in big trails through the solar system, roughly following the path of the comet, (though not always because the planets can move the dust about),” explains Will Gater, an astronomer and science presenter. “In the case of the Perseids, every August the Earth passes through the trail left by the Swift-Tuttle – and each year, we come back through the stream.”
It’s a bit like flying through a cloud of flies on the motorway, says Gater. “If you were on a circular road, you’re going around and around in circles and you’re hitting those flies every year.”
What can you expect to see?
Watching a meteor shower is an exercise in “expectation management” explains Gater. Ignore any reports from the press that suggest we’re going to see hundreds of meteors per hour. You aren’t going to see the sky light up like a fireworks show unfortunately. “I would say if you’re lucky and if you have totally clear skies, you may see up to – and that’s a strong caveat – five to ten meteors on average per hour, if you’re observing after midnight,” says Gater.
Several factors are working against your viewing this year – the main issue is that we’re currently very close to a full moon, the brightness of which will wash out many of the fainter meteors. “If you’re in a heavily lighted place you will see less,” says Gater. “And my calculation is based on the fact that the moon is going to be washing out the sky. That’s going to be the main source of light pollution – natural light pollution.”
It’s also important to note that the best views will be after midnight, which is true of all meteor showers. “Going back to the car analogy, it’s the difference between looking out the front windscreen and looking at the back,” says Gater. “Your location will be facing head on into the stream of meteors at that point.”
Of course, if it’s cloudy outside you’re not going to be able to see a thing. You can check out the Met Office’s cloud cover forecast to find out whether it’s worth setting your alarm for 3am in the morning.
How can you get an Instagram-worthy shot?
For anyone other than the most dedicated astrophotographer, it might be best to put the phone away and stick to the live event. “I’ve been doing astrophotography for over 20 years and meteor photography is probably the hardest kind,” says Gater. “This is because you have no idea where your target is going to appear in the sky and you don’t know how bright it’s going to be.”
You’re certainly not going to capture the Perseids with an iPhone. “If you have something like a DSLR camera and you use a long exposure and keep taking multiple long exposures of say 30 seconds at a time with a wide lens – you might catch something,” says Gater. “But it really is a lot like fishing, you really don’t know on the day what you’re going to get.”
Do I have to leave the house?
There are several online feeds for the armchair astronomers among us. The NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page will air a live feed from Alabama during the night of August 12, while The Virtual Telescope Project in Europe will share its own live feed starting at 11pm BST tonight.
What’s the bottom line?
Manage your expectations – but hold out hope. “With the Perseids, you occasionally get really nice fireballs,” says Gater. “So I would say that you’re really patient and you wrap up warm, you don’t know – you could see a really bright one and that would be worth the entire night waiting. It’s good fun.”
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