Monday, August 15, 2016

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Perseids meteor shower to put on a show this year

Western New York sky watchers have had a relatively eventless 2016 – no eclipses, a brief and disappointing look at Comet Catalina, and almost no northern lights.

Many of us are hopeful that next week’s annual Perseids meteor shower will more than make up for all of that.

That shower, which peaks this year on Aug. 12, is usually the most prolific of such shows every year, producing 60 shooting stars per hour.

This year’s looks to be a multiple of that, an “outburst year” or “peak year," because of how the debris field, which is remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle, is positioned by the gravitational pull of the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. Some scientists think that will increase the rate to as many as 200 meteors per hour!

The last time an outburst occurred was 2009 and astronomers were entertained with 140 per hour when watched from the darkest skies.

Dark skies are critical to enjoy this show at its best. You have to get away from the lights of the cities and villages. The best places to watch in the north of our reading area would be from the Lake Ontario shore, while those in the south are encouraged to get as close to the Pennsylvania border as they can, where some of the darkest skies in the entire northeast can be found. For city folk, it would be an excellent time to book a getaway to Allegany State Park.

The shower peaks on Aug. 12 (which is really the night of Aug. 11), but you will see a high volume of meteors from now until then. After that, we’ve passed the debris field and numbers drop off dramatically, so much so that next Friday night could be a dud.

If you look for them prior to midnight on a given night, you will be disappointed and wonder what the hype is all about. You have to go outdoors after midnight and hang there until dawn to really appreciate it. That’s because it is those hours that have our viewing area positioned towards the incoming dust (and, yes, most of these brilliant streakers and fireballs are nothing more than dust).

Because of the way we are tilted into the incoming particles, all of these meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, hence the name, which after midnight you will be able to find at due northeast about halfway up the sky.

This year, the moon won’t dampen the display because it will be only at a quarter of full, so its light will be low and it will have set by 1 a.m.

Give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the show – maybe an hour or two, because the shooting stars can come in waves. Also, to get the best effect, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the darkness (sometimes as much as 20 minutes), so don’t fiddle with your flashlight and don’t go onto your smartphone tweeting about every fireball you see. Keep it dark!

The overnights of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will be the best next week (with Thursday being a must-see) so if you don’t mind screwing up your sleep cycle and being a little groggy at work, get up (or stay up) and see these Perseids shower. It will be worth the torture and grogginess this year. You can count on that.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident. His column, Exploring the Niagara Frontier, is published every Thursday on All WNY News.

From the 04 August 2016 All WNY News

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