Perseids 2016: Guide to Watching a Meteor Shower


When and where to watch Perseids?

Perseids activity starts growing from the 5th of August and peaks on the night from 11th to 12th of August in European Russia and from 13th to 14th in Siberia and the Far East. Then their activity gradually decreases. The meteor shower stops on August 15th, single meteors can be seen until August 24th. According to IMO's (International Meteor Organization) prognoses for this year, during the peak days the number of meteors will reach 150 an hour.  The high amount of meteors this year is due to the closeness of a meteor flow shifted towards Earth by Jupiter's gravitational field. In addition to that, on August 12th Earth will be moving close to two tails of particles left by the comet Swift-Tuttle in 1479 and 1862, which will also contribute to the meteor shower's intensity. By the way, one can check on Perseids activity online using this link.

It's best to watch Perseids with a naked eye - binoculars, spy-glasses or telescopes will only narrow your vision. Still, bad weather or big city's illumination can spoil the whole view, so you'd better leave the city at sunset and go to a place with low or zero illumination. Hills, barrens and fields about 50 km from the city are ideal places to watch Perseids. The darker the sky and the wider the view, the more chance there is to spot even the smallest meteor. You can check the weather and cloudiness using the HydroMetCenter's service.

The other tip is to lie on a lounge or the ground - the view is much better that way. Don't forget to bring a sleeping bag as well, as nights in August may be quite cold. The temperature at night will be around 12 degrees. Be ready to lie for about two-three hours making 10-minute breaks until the day breaks. The breaks are to warm yourself up and retain concentration, either you'll miss most of the meteors after an hour due to tiredness.

How to watch

It is really easy to find Perseus in the sky. First, you have to look for the Big Dipper (Ursa Major, in Russia, it's called the Great Bear). If you look slightly to the left and up, you'll see another bright constellation that can be seen even in the city - the W-shaped Cassiopea. A little lower than Cassiopea are Perseus's four bright stars, which form a slightly bent line. From this point (it’s called a radiant) - between Cassiopea and Perseus, the Perseids fly, leaving bright thin lines in the sky. To check if the meteor is a Perseid, one should draw a visual line to check its "source". If it does not cross the radiant, then the meteor has no relation to the Perseids and is called sporadic. Still, even sporadic meteors can be bright and interesting to watch.

If you go meteor watching with a company and want to count the meteors you've seen, or know a lot about stars and constellations, you can watch Perseids "professionally": each of you has to pick a sector of the sky, using bright stars as marks. If you go further than 50 km from big cities, feel free to take a camera, good lens and a tripod. Here's a guide for taking photos of meteor showers.

If you don't see the meteors, don't let that upset you. The starry sky is a gift by itself; you can try studying the brightest stars, constellations and even galaxies using special apps. It is also a good idea to watch the satellites which move among "still" stars. You can even see the ISS, the International Space Station - one can track its location using a free app for iOS - ISS Spotter, or a cheap app ISS Detector Satellite Tracker for Android. There are also flashes from Iridium satellites, that are much loved by astronomers. Their tracks are different from those of Perseids - short, bright and resembling a spindle.

Advice for the future: if you'll really like watching meteor showers, then you should prepare for your future trips: study the best places to watch the stars and possible atmospheric conditions. One of the best places for that in Russia is Karachay-Cherkessia, the Nizhny Arkhyz village.  By the way, the Special Astrophysical Observatory of the Russian Academy of Science is located there as well, featuring Eurasia's biggest telescope, BTA. Professionals and amateurs have been going there to watch different meteor showers for several years already.

What else is there to see in the August sky

When talking about atmospheric phenomena, August is not only about Perseids. It is also a great time for watching noctilucent (mesospheric) clouds - those are relatively rare and really beautiful. These silvery clouds can be seen on the horizon: they glow there at nighttime, literally sparkling in the dark. Noctilucent clouds are different from common tropospheric clouds: they can only be seen when Sun shines upon them from below the horizon. What is more, they fly a lot higher, in the mesosphere about 85 kilometers above the ground. The nature of noctilucent clouds and their origin still haven't been thoroughly researched, which intrigues both professional astronomers and amateurs.

Another “bonus” of August's dark nights is the start of the season for Aurora watching. Thus, in the beginning of August an auroral storm has been registered - one resulting from a solar flare's coronal mass ejection towards Earth. The storm allowed those living in St. Petersburg and Leningrad Region to see the season's first aurora, even though it was a weak one. Those who missed this phenomenon should wait for new solar flares and cloudless dark nights. The stronger the aurora, the easier it is to see it from inside the city - one should go up to a high place (like a balcony or a rooftop) and look North. For those who like these strange flares in the sky, but aren’t good with specialized websites, there are several Vkontakte groups where relevant data is published regularly.