Right on schedule, meteors bright and faint rewarded patient watchers on the shower's peak night. As a bunch of S&T editors can attest.
Many meteor showers are shy and fickle, but not the Perseids. They vie with the December Geminids for the title of the richest and most reliable of the year. Last night they came through again — if you were out late under a dark sky.
In the suburbs of Boston where I live, "dark" isn't really the word. But who's entitled to perfection? My wife Abby and I settled in for an hour of meteor watching starting at 3:03 a.m. EDT, me in my old reliable lawn chair in a winter coat, clipboard in hand. The sky was perfectly clear and, at that late hour, a little darker than usual. I counted stars in two of the International Meteor Organization's convenient standard areas and found my limiting magnitude to be 5.0 overhead, where I was watching. Pretty good! And as the hour wore on and the Pleiades climbed the east, I counted eight Pleiades instead of my usual six.
And the meteors! We saw faint little zips and an occasional big, bold blaze that left a briefly glowing train. In 64 minutes I counted 28 Perseids, 2 Kappa Cygnids (both nearly head-on, close to the radiant at the wingtip of Cygnus), 1 Delta Aquariid, and 2 sporadics.
My count ended at 4:07 when my cellphone rang. It was NPR's Morning Edition calling for a live, under-the-stars radio interview. I described the meteors, and the starry view, and the sailing satellites that almost outnumbered the meteors, and I rhapsodized about why we do amateur astronomy. Did anyone hear it? With the crickets and peepers in the background?
Here are some other Sky & Telescope editors' experiences.
Equipment Editor Sean Walker set up a camera by a lake in New Hampshire hoping to get lucky. Of the three fireballs he saw, none crossed his frames while the shutter was open. But he caught the twisted smoke-train aftermath of one, as well as four faint little zips. He combined them into the composite at right. He writes,
Skies were extremely clear and dry along the shore of Lake Massabesic in Auburn, New Hampshire, where I set up. I saw several dozen meteors in 2 hours between 2:30 and 4:30 a.m., when twilight began to brighten — including three very bright fireballs, one of which left a visible train between Taurus and Orion that lasted around 10 minutes.
Here is a composite photo of the four meteors I captured this morning as well as the “smoke” train. This is a composite of five separate 30-second photos taken with a Canon XS and 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, shot at ISO 1600.
Editor in Chief Peter Tyson watched from scenic Lincoln near its border with Concord, similar to my own distance from Boston:
As I lay on my back between 3 and 4 a.m. in a farm field near Walden Pond, I was channeling Henry David Thoreau. That is, I was taking in everything. Yes, I was watching the sky, but I was also keeping an eye on a patch of mist hugging the far end of the field to see if it would change in size or position. I was listening to the “invisible, incessant quire” of the crickets, whose songs Thoreau deemed “the very grain and stuff of which eternity is made.” I was assessing a faint aroma of manure, trying to determine if it was coming from a distant barn or from beneath my person. I was tasting the crisp, air, whose chill, enhanced by the dew-soaked grass I lay on, forced me to don a sweatshirt for the first time this summer.
As a result, whenever a meteor whipped past above, it caught me slightly off guard. Whoa, look at that! Fortunately, my eyes were in more or less the right place for the four best meteors, all of which left a smoky, fire-tinged afterglow for a second or two. With each I tried to get my head around the idea that that tiny object had been part of a comet drifting around the solar system for billions of years and only just this moment ended its age-old journey. I attempted to conjure what it would be like to streak alongside that streak, like Einstein imagined racing beside a light beam. (His thought experiment was a bit more fruitful than mine.) How many such meteors did Thoreau see, I wondered, perhaps from this very piece of land?
Altogether I caught sight of about 15 to 20 before the thought of how delicious more sleep would feel forced me to my feet and back to my car. It had been a satisfactory visual show, but coupled with the harvest from my other senses, it made for a truly delightful hour in Thoreau country.
This from Senior Editor J. Kelly Beatty:
We S&T editors always say the best way to see the Perseids is to get away from light pollution, and this year I took my own advice by going to a remote site in central Maine that boasts awesomely dark (6.4-magnitude) skies. Even better, I was surrounded by a dozen families who love stargazing too. Two rounds of early evening thunderstorms dampened the ground — but not our spirits. By 11 p.m. our observing area was cluttered with reclining chairs, and the air resonated with "oohs" and "ahhs" with each brilliant streak. Several fireballs showed a distinctive green, the telltale hue of nickel. This shower definitely lived up to its advance billing, and some of our group commented that it was the best display they'd ever seen — well, except for the 1998–99 Leonids!
Like many of you, web editor Monica Young got skunked:
My fail-safe technique for getting up in the early-morning hours (falling asleep on the couch) worked like a charm, and I got up at 12:30 a.m. The sky was crystal clear for about a minute and then this huge bank of clouds rolled in, and I gave up and went to bed.
But there's tonight! If the shower continues true to form it should still be at about half strength on Friday morning, and half on that on Saturday morning.
Here's the International Meteor Organization's activity curve for the ongoing Perseid shower, based on the incoming data that it has processed from observers as of when you click. My counts are in it!