For serious star watchers, Wednesday night is the Super Bowl of stargazing.
That’s when the best-known and typically most intense meteor shower, the Perseid shower, will occur.
Every year, from mid-July through the end of August, Earth passes through material left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. This material – often resembling falling stars – are meteors, bits of rock that burn up when they crash into Earth’s atmosphere, showing up as streaks in the night sky.
Meteor showers in which anywhere from a dozen to a few dozen meteors can be seen each hour occur a few dozen times each year.
The Perseid shower, named because the meteors appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, can show up as 100 meteors per hour streaking at 37 miles per second during its peak in the early morning Thursday.
Don’t expect to see a meteor “fall” every minute.
“If there’s going to be 90 meteors per hour, that doesn’t mean you can count 90 meteors,” said Robert Henry, program manager for Lake Afton Public Observatory. “You can only see about 120 degrees from the sky.”
That means a stargazer can see only about one-third of the sky, so expect to see maybe 30 meteors each hour. But don’t think that means at least one meteor every two minutes.
“You might see four in a minute and then not see any for 15 minutes,” Henry said. “You have to have patience.”
Paying attention also helps stargazers, because meteors last less than a second.
“It will be so short-lived that if you’re with somebody sitting back-to-back to see more of the sky, they can say, ‘Look at that,’ and it will be gone,” Henry said.
The later you stay up, the more shooting stars you’ll see.
Peak viewing time falls between midnight and the hours before dawn on Thursday, Henry said.
Although the Perseid meteor shower is known to be one of the more reliable productions, predictions on peak activity are just that: predictions.
“Not every year is going to be a great show,” Henry said.
This year’s show is expected to be better than in years past.
Light reflecting off the moon can be as detrimental to stargazing as the bright lights of a big city, reports NASA.
A new moon will begin Friday, the day after the meteor shower, which means Thursday night will have little to no moonlight, making for an unobstructed celestial show.
The Lake Afton Public Observatory is offering free public viewing outside the building. Doors also will be open from midnight to 3 a.m. Thursday for a fee. Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for ages 6-12. Those under 6 are free. A family ticket is $18.
This is one of the last chances to visit the observatory. It is scheduled to close Aug. 22 due to budget cuts at Wichita State University, which staffs the observatory.
Admission gets astronomy enthusiasts access to the observatory’s telescope to see star clusters, distant galaxies and clouds of interstellar gas and dust.
To shave $1 off the regular admission price, guests are invited to bring some form of appropriate shower attire: a raincoat, an umbrella or a towel. Even a bar of soap will do.
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▪ Find a dark area away from the city. In a state like Kansas, one does not need to drive that far. A dark location could be as close as Maize or a bit past Andover, said Robert Henry, program manager for Lake Afton Public Observatory.
▪ Give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness. This can take up to 20 minutes, so put down the cellphone.
▪ No need to have a telescope or binoculars. These devices cover only a small portion of the sky.
▪ Bring something comfortable to sit or lie on. A blanket or reclining lawn chair will do.
▪ For the best vantage point, lie on your back and stare straight up at the sky. This gives you an increased field of vision, so all you miss out on are meteors on the horizon.
▪ If you’re in a colder climate, dress warmly.
▪ Don’t forget bug spray.