For stargazers, this time of the year is always fun when the annual Perseids meteor shower puts on a show. This year, the moon phase cooperated, leaving dark skies for the best viewing conditions, and I headed up to Mount Rainier National Park on the night of Aug. 11.
I saw many big fireballs in the sky but only managed to capture one with my camera pointed toward the Milky Way and the massive Emmons Glacier on the northeast flank of Mount Rainier.
Look closely at my photo above, and you’ll see headlamps from climbers on the glaciers hoping to reach the summit by sunrise. I got a bit lucky, as the wildfire smoke from the nearby Schneider Springs fire near Naches, Wash., filtered in and obscured the view at 4 a.m.
The source of the Perseids is debris from the 109P/Swift-Tuttle comet as it passes near earth each year. The shower is active this year from July 14 through Aug. 24, with peak meteor activity up to 100 meteors/hour between Aug. 11-13. However, the shower continues and you’ll still see meteors if you are watching the sky during the coming days, just fewer of them.
Meteors generally radiate from the constellation Perseus, thus the name. They are best viewed in the northern hemisphere during pre-dawn hours. Looking north toward Perseus is generally the best strategy, but meteors will appear in all areas of the sky. This particular shot is actually looking toward the southwest.
Here are a few tips to maximize your viewing experience:
- Find a place that’s far away from the glare of city lights, with a minimum of trees and buildings blocking your view.
- Wildfire smoke may obscure the show. The forecast for Western Washington has an onshore flow beginning Saturday that should push the wildfire smoke out of our region by the end of the weekend.
- You have a better chance of seeing meteors after the moon sets. On Aug. 13, the moon sets at 11 p.m. in Seattle and gradually gets later each evening afterwards.
- Bring a lounge chair, blanket, or sleeping bag and find a comfortable position for looking up into the night sky.
- Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark, and don’t expect to see fireworks. Don’t gaze into the glare of your smartphone if you can help it. Bring a flashlight so you can walk safely to your viewing spot, but be mindful of others.
- Consider taking along snacks and a thermos of coffee or some other energizing beverage to keep you alert during the pre-dawn hours.