A warm summer’s night swathed in an inky indigo sky dotted with countless flickering stars–what could be more picturesque? How about a starry sky streaked with hundreds and thousands of shooting stars, each one just waiting to be wished upon? Well this week is the perfect opportunity to lounge under the stars and enjoy one of the universe’s most breathtaking spectacles: the Perseid meteor shower. So grab a blanket and a thermos of hot chocolate and get ready to marvel at the mysteries and beauty of the universe.
Each summer, the night sky teems with shooting stars (meteors) when the Earth passes through a cloud of dusty debris along the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The Perseid meteor shower usually runs from mid-July through August, peaking around August 9-14. And this year’s meteor shower is shaping up to be the show of the decade. NASA is predicting that instead of the standard 80 meteors per hour, the shower could top out at 150-200 meteors per hour at its peak. That’s because Jupiter’s gravity is concentrating the debris right in front of Earth’s path. Thanks, Jupiter!
1. Get Your Bearings
It’s all geek to me.
So where should you be looking? Well you could see meteors anywhere in the night sky, but their paths will all trace toward a spot next to the constellation Perseus. You can use good, old-fashioned star charts to locate Perseus’ position in the night sky, if you know how to use them. Or you can check out some of the apps I mention below. Many of them use your phone’s GPS and compass to map out and show you exactly what you’re looking at in the night sky. No smartphone? Find the North Star at the end of the Little Dipper’s tail. Look at the sky about two hand-widths away from there (in the direction opposite the Little Dipper’s bucket). You should see a group of stars that form an M, W, E, or 3. Look toward the bottom-left side of the W, and Perseus will be the group of stars nearby that form a crooked triangle.
2. Get Comfy
Warm and cozy!
Blankets and pillows are a stargazing must. Find a soft patch of grass, spread out a blanket and some pillows, and lay down under the stars. Trust me, after five minutes of craning your neck, peering up at the sky, you’ll be happy to have a place to lay down your head. If you have beach chairs that recline all the way back, now’s the time to use them too. Never pass up a comfy chair. A light jacket isn’t out of the question either. Those summer nights can get a bit chilly sometimes.
Nom, nom, nom!
Stargazing can work up quite an appetite, and the night sky’s the limit when it comes to snacks. Looking for a handy and tasty object lesson? Meteors are dust and debris burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the debris is no bigger than a pea or a grape. So it might be fun to pack a bag of wasabi peas or fresh grapes. You could go all-out and buy astronaut ice cream and other freeze-dried food. Or just keep it simple and pack whatever healthy (or maybe not so healthy) treats you have on-hand. If you want to make a special treat from scratch, here are a few tasty-looking, spacey/summery recipes I found on Pinterest.
- Galaxy Sugar Cookies (By Kid’s Activity Blog)
- Galaxy Bark (By Life with the Crust Off)
- Hot Chocolate Muddy Buddies (By Mama Loves Food!)
- S’mores Cookie Bars (By Something Swanky)
3. Get Savvy
Early to bed and even earlier to rise.
And when I say early, I mean set your alarm clock for I-didn’t-even-know-this-time-existed o’clock. Once you pick a day to watch the meteor shower, find out what time the moon sets and set your alarm clock for then. Around 1 or 2 AM seems to be a good ballpark. Why so early? Well let’s just say moonlight is a stargazer’s frenemy. It’s very pretty, but you want it to be nice and dark so it’s easier to see the meteors. It’s the same reason why you should get away from the light pollution of cities and suburbs if you can.
Don’t look into the light!
It takes about 30 minutes for your eyes to adjust to darkness. Once your eyes become accustomed to the dark, you don’t want to ruin it by looking at a bright light. But did you know that your eyes are less sensitive to certain color lights? Red light is a stargazer’s friend because you can look at it without completely ruining your newly acquired night vision. You can buy red flashlights specifically for stargazing, or you can simply tape red paper or cellophane over your flashlight.
The world can seem pretty empty and quiet when you’re laying under the stars in the early hours of dawn. Until you hear the ominous buzzzzzzz of a ravenous mosquito that is. Make sure you avoid becoming a walking blood bank by applying plenty of mosquito repellent before you go outside.
4. Get Curious
Everyone loves a good story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love sciencey stuff just as much as the next nerd. But space junk and balls of gas burning millions of light years away can feel remote, even eerie. Add a story and suddenly everything comes to life. Looking at the stars becomes like looking at the pages of a book. This Western Washington University page delves into the classic myths behind a lot of the constellations. Some of the apps mentioned below give a little info about the constellations’ mythology. If you’re want to learn even more or are looking for a modern, family-friendly retelling of the Greek myths, check out Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes by Rick Riordan. Jot down a few stories about the constellations on note cards that you can chat about while keeping an eye out for meteors.
For example, let’s look at the namesake of the Perseid meteor shower. Perseus was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal princess Danaë. Known as a great hero, one of his most famous exploits was killing Medusa, one of the three monstrous sisters known as the Gorgons. Anyone who looked upon Medusa was instantly turned to stone. Perseus used a polished shield given to him by the goddess, Athena, to look at the reflection of Medusa while fighting. He cut off Medusa’s head and from her blood sprung the first winged horse, Pegasus.
5. Get App-y
There are so many amazing astronomy apps to choose from: Starmap, Pocket Universe, Solar Walk, Sky Safari, and many more. I downloaded SkyView Free for iOS and instantly loved it. There is a more advanced version of the app available for $1.99, but for first time stargazers, the free version is more than adequate. Any self-respecting space geek should also consider downloading the NASA app, which features dazzling photos and videos, info about current missions, and much more. I also downloaded an app called Exoplanet, which features a mind-boggling, interactive map of all the known planets orbiting stars beyond our solar system.
“Look at the sky. It is not dark and black and without character. The black is, in fact, deep blue. And over there! Lighter blue. And blowing through the blueness and blackness, the winds swirling through the air. And then shining, burning, bursting through, the stars! Can you see how they roll light? Everywhere we look, the complex majesty of nature blazes before our eyes.”
–Doctor Who: “Vincent and the Doctor”
Do you have any other stargazing tip? I’d love to hear them! Let me know in the comments below. If you liked this post, please share it on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.