Jason Shilling Kendall: Citizen Astronomer

William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York
Hunter College

Pluto and Perseid meteor shower on the Weather Channel

August 4, 2015

An interview on The Weather Channel's, "Wake Up With Al Roker", featuring Pluto results and the Perseid meteor shower.

Learn more about seeing the Perseids here

Where to see the Perseid Meteor Shower.

The Perseid meteor shower of 2015 could be one of the best in recent times, for the prime reason that the Moon is in “new” phase. This means no moonlight to wash out the little flashes of light in the sky. The peak of the shower is on the night of August 12 into the 13th. If you live in New York City, you will need to get a little bit out of town in order to see them, so I've prepared a guide to help you enjoy this annual event.

  1. "Where do I go to see them?"
    The Perseids should be visible anywhere where streetlights are far apart and few between. So make sure you get a few miles from all of them. If you can see at least 200 stars in the sky above you, then you are probably in a good beginning place. To see the best meteor shower possible, go to a place where you are astonished by how many stars you can count. That’s the best place.
  2. “OK, so get away from streetlights. Where can I go for that?”
    In New York City, there are two places accessible by public transit: Staten Island Great Kills Park and Inwood Hall Park. Neither are perfect for meteor viewing, since they both close too early.
  3. “Too early? What do you mean?”
    All meteor showers are basically viewed only from midnight onwards. This is because the Earth goes around the Sun, and the Earth turns on its axis. As an analogy, when you drive a car, bugs only splatter on the front windshield. Before midnight, we are looking out the “side windows” of the car. The “front windshield” of the Earth-as-car occurs when the rotation points in the same direction as the orbit. That’s between midnight and sunrise. So, you won’t see many meteors after dinner. You must go out after midnight. The problem then becomes that most city parks are closed then.
  4. “So I need to be where it’s dark and it has to be after midnight. Where do I go?”
    For New Yorkers, that means carpooling or zipcar-ing or bus or train out of the too-bright lights of the City. Not mall parking lots, either. Remember, you have to be able to count about 200 in the sky. So, find a park on Google maps, and go there. Prime spots are campgrounds and really big parks. You want to be far away from those pesky lights.
  5. “You’re kidding right? I gotta go to Jersey or Connecticut or PA? OK, this is no fun, now. Can’t I just TRY for something in the City? What are my chances?”
    Yes, you can give it the old college try. Inwood Hill Park is right off the “A” train, and the trail up to the dark hilltop is easy to follow. There’s a nice clearing that overlooks the Hudson. Great Kills in Staten Island is an excellent location, (I know, Staten Island is almost worse than Jersey…) . You could try Van Cortlandt Park in The Bronx. That is big and open. Central Park is basically a very bad idea due to the lights. You simply will not see any meteors. This is a little adventure no matter how you chop it up. City lights completely wipe out the meteors.
  6. “OK, I’ll do it. I’m going up to the Catskills or the Poconos or Montauk to see them. What do I do to see them?”
    OK. Just bring a lawn chair, coffee and bug spray. Then just look up. Look mostly straight up after midnight. But look basically everywhere. Let your eyes look everywhere, and just stay relaxed. No need for a telescope. Bring a friend. It’s always more fun with friends. Please don’t drink, though. At the end of the night, you’ll be tired, and if you’re drinking in a public park, and then driving, you’re risking too much. This is an outing to stay awake and alert and watchful.
  7. “Can I take pictures of them?”
    Nope. In fact, don’t use your cellphone at all. The lights from them will make you not be able to see the faint flashes. And, while you’re texting someone, your friends will say “Wow did you see that??” You’ll pull your head up too late. So, join the real world and leave the online world behind.
  8. “But I have a cool camera.”
    OK, then, go check how to keep the shutter open on your camera and take a longer exposure, or a lot of exposures in sequence. It’ll still be tricky, and not that fun. If it’s your first time, just watch the stars, and look for them.
  9. “So what are they?”
    If it’s not cloudy and you’ve gotten away from city lights, then you’ll see streaks of light appear in the sky. They will travel fast, brightening and dimming within a second or two. Staying out from midnight to 2AM, you should see 50-100 of them. They don’t make sounds, and are typically as bright as the stars themselves. If you are REALLY lucky, you’ll see one that is very bright and breaks apart. They are called fireballs or bollides.
  10. “I meant, what causes them? Do stars really fall out of the sky?”
    Meteors come from comets that have travelled too close to the Sun. When they come close to the Sun, they fall apart, and leave a trail of debris. As Earth passes through these rocks, then we see meteors. The debris is composed of little rocks about the size of grains of rice or sand. The fireballs are never much bigger than a grape. Extremely bright objects are much larger, and much rarer.
  11. “Do I have to worry? Will I get hit by one? I saw that thing in Russia a couple of years ago, and I’m worried.”
    Don’t worry. The little rocks burn up at an altitude of about 30-60 miles, and they turn to dust, which then floats down to Earth. Only the very largest make it to Earth, and they are very rare. By very rare, we mean one rock lands near a populated area once every decade or so. There have only been a handful people ever hurt by a meteorite in the last hundred years, and those were from big rocks, and not from a meteor shower.
  12. “Sounds like fun. I want to know more.”
    The American Meteor Society is the best resource, and you can ever report fireballs to them. NASA has good resources too, as does Sky and Telescope magazine.

William Paterson University Department of Physics American Astronomical Society Amateur Astronomers Association of New York Astronomical Society of the Pacific