If you've been hovering around the house this summer, this weekend might be your best opportunity to get out. As summer wanes and dark returns to northern skies, the annual Perseid meteor shower will pour through the heavens and put on a show for skywatchers.
Rolling around every year in late July or early August, the Perseid meteor shower is the result of Earth passing through debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. And according to NASA, the best times to see this year's show will be August 11-13, with the peak coming in the pre-dawn hours Sunday.
Those in the Lower 48 will get luckier with their viewing opportunities, as some of the best times to see the cosmic display are in the dark hours before the moon rises, though the timing of this year's event is fortuitous for all. That's because the the crescent moon will keep the sky a little bit darker than usual. Though it's still dusky in the hours leading up to midnight in Alaska's largest city of Anchorage, those further south, like Kodiak and Southeast, may be able to see it in the late evening hours.
Dr. Andy Puckett, director of the planetarium and an assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said that the Lower 48 will have a much better viewing window than much of Alaska -- about eight hours worth.
" But in Anchorage, not only is the sun up two hours longer, but twilight lasts about 2.5 times longer," Puckett said in an email. "So dark skies only last about 2.5 hours, from 12:45-3:15am. So the meteor-viewing window is limited."
Puckett also said that the best time for viewing won't be "after midnight" as it is in most places, but after 2 a.m. in Alaska. Still, those few hours should produce a healthy display of activity.
"We expect to see meteor rates as high as a hundred per hour," Bill Cooke, with NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, said in a statement. "The Perseids always put on a good show."
There's another reason to watch this year's show, as well.
"This year's display is extra-special because of the planets," NASA reports. "Jupiter, Venus, and the crescent Moon are gathering together just as the Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak. The alignment occurs in the eastern sky before sunrise on the three mornings of highest meteor activity."
This being Alaska, any astronomical show has the added potential of northern lights accompanying the display, especially since the aurora has already returned to the Interior. Unfortunately, the forecast provided by the aurora forecast page at the University of Alaska Fairbanks doesn't look too promising, with only mild auroral activity over the weekend.
Getting out of town will also increase your chances of spotting meteors: just like with northern lights, the darker the sky, the better for viewing. That means escaping city lights and getting into uninhabited areas.
"Faint meteors are easily lost in the urban glare," a NASA ScienceCast video reports. "A visit to the countryside will typically triple the number of meteors you'll see."
Puckett agreed that getting away from city lights is the most important part of seeing the Perseids, but he had some other helpful tips for Alaskans as well.
"If I were going out observing Perseids near Anchorage this year, I would be looking straight up," Puckett said. "I might also pick a location with mountains to my east, to block out the light from the crescent moon, which will be rising during our prime darkness time."
Will the weather cooperate? Unfortunately, cloud cover is predicted for much of the state, including Southeast, the far North, and Southwest. Portions of the Interior look the most promising, with partly cloudy to mostly sunny skies predicted for Saturday and Sunday in the area around Fairbanks. There should be some breaks in the clouds in Southcentral, but be sure to check out the weather in your area at the National Weather Service page for Alaska.
So pack a blanket, some coffee and a picnic basket, and do a little tailgating before the universe puts on a show. If you're stuck at home or under heavy clouds, you could always tune into the live audio and video feed or join a live chat with NASA scientists, here.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com