Sky watchers anticipate nice show

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- For some special late-night star viewing tonight, you don't need a television set. Just a blanket and a clear, dark sky.

The annual Perseids meteor shower will start sometime after 10 p.m. tonight, with the frequency of the shooting stars increasing in the pre-dawn hours of Friday. For those who like a good celestial show, this Friday the 13th may be their lucky day -- at least before sunrise.

Bill Cook, lead for the NASA Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center at Huntsville, Ala., said in a phone interview Friday that those who want to see a meteor streaking through the upper atmosphere will have their best opportunity of the year tonight. As far as special equipment, he says, all you need are your eyes.

"They come from the constellation of Perseus. The meteor showers always get their names from the constellations they appear to come from," Cook said. "But the best way to view it is to lie flat on your back on a lawn chair, sleeping bag or blanket and look straight up.

"Take in as much of the sky as possible. Don't use binoculars, don't use a telescope, just use your eyes and try to see as much of the sky as possible because they can appear anywhere in the sky."

Cook, who earned his undergraduate degree 80 miles southeast of Albany at Valdosta State College (now university), said sky watchers shouldn't expect to see a huge flurry of meteors all at once, and they likely won't see any before 10 p.m.

"That's what they call a meteor storm, but the Perseids are a meteor shower," he said. "Realistically, if you're out around 4 a.m., just before dawn, when the meteor shower is at its peak, you're going to see probably on the order of a meteor every minute because you've got dark skies.

"You won't see Perseus until around nine or 10 o'clock and then you won't see many (meteors) until after midnight. So, it's kind of a 'get out there with your lawn chair or your sleeping bag and lay out until dawn' type thing. But if you go out around midnight or 1 a.m., I guarantee you'll see a few Perseids if you're out there more than 30 or 40 minutes."

While the sky won't be perfect for the celestial show tonight, it will at least be better than average, National Weather Service meteorologist Ron Block of Tallahassee said Wednesday. The Weather Service is predicting that about 65 percent of the sky will be free of cloud cover tonight, with the chance of a more common type of shower -- rain -- at only 16 percent.

"Right now it's obviously not ideal conditions, but it's better than average," Block said. "And those clouds could be higher level clouds, which wouldn't impact as much." He said the higher clouds are "pretty much transparent and you can see through them," unlike the denser lower clouds.

One wildcard, however, is the remnants of Tropical Depression 5, which was coming ashore Wednesday afternoon. "Most of that will be west of us," Block said, adding that the bands of rain associated with the storm were getting weaker Wednesday.

"But you could get a band coming through Albany and five miles away it's clear as a bell," he said.

There's actually a preliminary show tonight for those who enjoy scanning the heavens, one for which aids such as telescopes or astronomical binoculars would be beneficial.

"If you're out right near sundown, you'll see Venus, Saturn and Mars, along with the crescent moon, in the western skies," Cook said. "Then after they set around 10 o'clock, you'll see Perseid meteors. It's kind of a good night. You can go out after sunset, if you've got a telescope you can enjoy the planets and then around 10 o'clock of so you can put away your telescope and lay flat on your back and start watching some Perseids."

That crescent moon, which will get out of the way sometime around 10 p.m., is a big reason why tonight's show will likely be the best for the remainder of the year, he said.

"The Geminid meteor shower in mid December is kind of the best meteor shower of the year," Cook said. "It has the most meteors. The Perseids only have about 80 or 90 meteors per hour, but the Geminids have over 120 meteors per hour."

One of the problems with watching the Geminids is the time of year is colder. While that often isn't an issue in Southwest Georgia -- where the mercury often hits in the mid to upper 80s at Christmas -- there is another consideration.

"The problem this year is there'll be a first-quarter moon that will interfere with some of the Geminids," Cook said. "So, the Perseid meteor shower is probably going to be one of the better views of the year. If I was going to look at a meteor shower this year, I'd probably pick this one. I think you'll have a pretty good show.