Humboldt County, California.
Stargazing season is upon us, when the spectacular Milky Way is visible immediately after dark, soaring from horizon to horizon, and the Perseid meteor shower peak is approaching. Of course, one can watch the stars on any clear night and feel the immensity of space around us, but during the summer months, the Milky Way will make it worth the extra waiting for darkness to fall. At this time of year, the most dramatic portion of that misty belt is visible above the southern horizon.
The Milky Way is both the name of our galaxy as well as the name of the band of lighter milkiness we see stretching across the night sky. It is lighter than the rest of the night sky because when we look toward it, we are looking through our spiral, or pinwheel-shaped galaxy edge-on, right through the densest number of stars, glowing nebulae, etc. In our edge-on view, all of this blends together into indistinct milkiness in the vast interstellar distances involved. The Galactic Core is the center of the galaxy, and it is that densest region, the part with the greatest visible detail from Earth, that can be seen low on the southern horizon after dark at this time of year.
Looking to either side of the Milky Way’s band is to look above and below the plane of our flattened spiral galaxy, out where the stars are fewer and less closely packed. If your mind is boggled, don’t worry, it’s probably a good thing; it keeps it from being blown. You’re extremely tiny in all this, not really important at all, helplessly adrift in O u t e r S p a c e.
We begin to lose the best of this incredible galactic feature as fall progresses and the Milky Way’s core sinks beneath the horizon. We won’t see it back in the sky again until February, when you can only see it in the very wee hours of the morning. Now is when it’s available before bed time.
Perseid Meteor Shower
In August we have the Perseid meteor shower. It is an annual astronomical show of falling stars, which will peak the nights of August 11 and 12. The peak could see 40 to 60 meteors per hour. Perseid meteors are composed of debris (meteoroids) from the tail of comet Swift-Tuttle that pelt Earth’s atmosphere. They strike the atmosphere at around 130,000 miles per hour and burn up as they streak across the sky — producing what we call meteors or shooting stars.
The annual display occurs when Earth glides through the remnants of comet Swift-Tuttle’s tail each year in our orbit around the sun. Swift-Tuttle’s orbit takes it from the outer reaches of the Solar System down to the sun and back out again in a 133-year orbit. While the comet last visited our neighborhood in 1992, the trail of particles it leaves behind persists.
The Perseid meteors are so named because they radiate from an area of the sky near the constellation Perseus, which, during the peak, will be rising in the northeast sky after about 10:00 p.m. The best of the show will be between midnight and dawn.
The point where the Perseid meteors strike the atmosphere is called the radiant, for they appear to radiate outward from that point as the meteors strike the atmosphere and streak across the sky. Thus, their tails will be shorter looking toward the constellation Perseus than they will be if one looks to the side. In my experience, many of them streak along parallel to the Milky Way, which will be out in all its glory that night, barring sky cover.
While the Perseids do peak around August 11 and 12, some of the shower’s meteors begin falling weeks before the peak, and will continue in lesser numbers for around ten days after the peak.
When you go out:
You must give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness. Avoid using bright lights. Over the course of twenty minutes or so, your eyes will be fully adjusted to the dark, and you may be amazed at how much you can see both on the ground and in the heavens.
Bring warm, comfortable clothing and a camp chair or lawn chair to sit on; bring water.
Bring a headlamp or flashlight with red light ability. Avoid using a normal flashlight if you can, as its harsh light will destroy your night vision and that of anyone around you; instead, use a red light to see your surroundings without hurting your night vision much. Some flashlights and many headlamps have a red light capability. You’ll be glad you have it for night sky viewing.
Your phone: looking at your phone will set your night vision back for minutes. Avoid it if you can. Sometimes I have to refer to my phone’s stopwatch to help me time a really long exposure, and for this purpose I turn its brightness way down.
May you enjoy many hours of night sky viewing.