Annual Perseid meteor shower to peak this weekend; tips for how to photograph it
Grab a friend, pack a blanket and head outside Saturday night because the annual Perseid meteor shower is peaking.
Every year as Earth orbits around the sun and through the wake of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, bits of debris from the 17-mile-wide icy space ball enter the Earth’s atmosphere at 133,000 mph, reaching temperatures of 3,000 to 10,000 degrees and creating the meteors stargazers see in the sky.
“When the comet gets close to the sun — not that close, but in the inner solar system — it melts a little and leaves a lot of debris behind,” explained Cathy Cox, Ph.D., a physics professor at Lake Tahoe Community College. “The comet’s orbit around the sun is highly elliptical, so it goes away from the sun then comes back in close to the sun. The last time it went by was 1992 and the next time it will go by is 2126.”
The Perseid meteor shower occurs every year on a predictable schedule, starting around July 17 until about Sept. 1. The shower peaks in August with the most meteors per hour expected late on Saturday, Aug. 12, or very early the next morning.
“It’s hard to predict for sure, but they are thinking about 150 meteors an hour. So that’s a few every minute,” said Cox. “But the moon is going to be about three-quarters full, so some of the more faint meteors won’t show up as well.”
Cox recommends finding a dark spot outside, away from street or house lights, and allowing your eyes at least 30 minutes to adjust.
She also suggests downloading a free astronomy app — Celestron SkyPortal is her favorite — in order to locate the constellation Perseus, where the Perseids appear to originate from.
In the mood to capture the moment?
North Shore-based photographer Phil Mosby has been shooting the night sky around Lake Tahoe for the past four years.
“My dad was an astronomy geek, so I’ve always been interested in space,” said Mosby, who works full-time as a professional photographer, selling his prints online (http://www.phil.camera) and at local shops. “It’s very tedious and requires a lot of patience.”
Though Mosby uses expensive, specialized equipment to capture the Perseids — like a “star tracker” that moves the camera at the same speed as the Earth during long exposure times in order to avoid “star trails”— he said even an amateur shutterbug can photograph the meteors with a little patience and dedication.
“You need a camera that gives you manual control. The very basic technique is to take the camera out on a steady tripod, and start by setting your shutter speed around 20 seconds, which should be sufficient with the bright moon,” explained Mosby.
Next, Mosby recommends setting as low of an F-stop as possible — around 3 (the smaller the F-stop, the wider the lens diameter).
“Then you slowly start turning up your ISO [the sensitivity of the image sensor], until you start seeing some detail in your photos,” said Mosby.
Mosby will take hundreds of shots over a few-hour period to make sure he captures the meteors.
“It’s definitely something that’s achievable for anyone if they just take the time,” added Mosby.
As for best spots to watch and photograph the Perseids, Mosby recommends checking out Emerald Bay or any of the South Shore beaches.
“If people are feeling more adventurous, of course getting up into the backcountry would be great.”