A Perseid meteor and the Milky Way galaxy over Mount Rainier. (Photo by Kevin Lisota)
For star gazers, this time of year is always fun when the annual Perseid meteor shower puts on a show. That year the moon phase played along, leaving dark skies for the best viewing conditions, and I drove to Mount Rainier National Park on the night of August 11th.
I saw many large fireballs in the sky, but could only capture one with my camera of the Milky Way and the massive Emmons Glacier on the northeast flank of Mount Rainier.
Take a close look at my photo above and you will see headlamps from climbers on the glaciers hoping to reach the summit at sunrise. I was a little lucky when the wildfire smoke from the nearby Schneider Springs fire seeped in at Naches, Washington, obscuring the view at 4 a.m.
The source of the Perseids is debris from Comet 109P / Swift-Tuttle, which passes near Earth every year. The shower is active this year from July 14th to August 24th, with a maximum meteor activity of up to 100 meteors / hour between August 11th and 13th. However, the shower continues and you will still see meteors in the days to come if you watch the sky, just less of them.
Meteors generally radiate from the constellation Perseus, hence the name. They are best seen in the northern hemisphere during the hours before dawn. Looking north towards Perseus is generally the best strategy, but meteors will appear in all areas of the sky. This particular shot is actually facing southwest.
Here are a few tips to maximize your viewing experience:
- Find a place that is far from the harsh city lights, with a minimum of trees and buildings to block your view.
- Wildfire smoke can darken the show. The forecast for West Washington has an onshore flood starting Saturday that should displace the forest fire smoke from our region by the end of the weekend.
- You have a better chance of seeing meteors after the moon sets. On August 13th, the moon sets in Seattle at 11 p.m. and slowly gets later every night after that.
- Bring a lounge chair, blanket, or sleeping bag and find a comfortable position to look up at the night sky.
- Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark and don’t expect fireworks. Don’t look into the glare on your smartphone if you can avoid it. Bring a flashlight so you can get to your lookout point safely, but watch out for others.
- Consider bringing snacks and a thermos of coffee or other stimulating drink to keep you awake during the hours before dawn.