Jason Shilling Kendall: Citizen Astronomer

William Paterson University
Amateur Astronomers Association of New York

Perseid Meteor Shower

Stargazing sessions are supported by the Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

The peak is in middle August The best times are from 11:00 PM local time to 4:00 AM local time. This is YOUR local time, not Eastern or Pacific or GMT. If you miss the peak, go outside anyway after midnight. Looking for meteors is a lot of fun.

I'm in an article in the New York Times.

Helpful Links about the Perseids and viewing them

Locations in or near New York City to see them.

The Basics

  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 a few good places accessible by public transit: Staten Island Great Kills Park, Van Cordtland Park, Prospect Park and Inwood Hall Park. None are perfect for meteor viewing, since they all close early.
  3. "Too early? What do you mean?"
    All meteor showers are basically viewed only from midnight onwards. This is because the Earth orbits around the Sun and the Earth rotates on its axis, changing which way is "front" as the Earth goes around the Sun. 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. For the most part, city lights wipe out your ability to see meteors. That, however, has not stopped people. Many people in the Amateur Astronomers Association have reported seeing meteors from their apartment building rooftops in Brooklyn and Queens. So, if you really can't get away, then try it out. You never know what you might see. If you get going around, then 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. You just don't want lights shining down on you from above, and you want to get away from or turn as many off as you can. Going out makes this is a little adventure no matter how you chop it up.
  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. "I read that the meteors you see streaking across the sky are only the size of a grain of sand. How is it possible that such a tiny thing could leave a trail visible from so far away?"
    That's a really good question. When something is going between 40,000 and 200,000 kilometers per hour, and it hits the atmosphere, it gets quite hot (~1600C) and vaporizes. These things may be little, but they pack a lot of energy of motion. Transfer all the energy of motion to a dead stop in a matter of seconds, and it creates a big light show. Obviously, the longer the streak in the sky, the bigger was the meteoroid. Most are really small, and almost none make it to the ground intact. Most just vaporize to dust and float down to Earth. There are so many meteors every day, that a barely measurable amount of the dust in your apartment is meteoric. The Earth gets about 60 tons a year of meteor dust. So take a deep breath. (Fun facts for a ten-year-old...) I used to live in New Mexico, and I once was out after midnight and all of a sudden, it was as bright as noon. I looked up and saw a meteor exploding above me into pieces. I even heard a faint boom about 30 seconds later. That was probably about the size of a bowling ball. Bigger ones can make it to the ground, but they tend to hit the ocean.
  13. "Meteor showers are 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