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A Guide to the Perseid Meteor Shower
updated: Aug 10, 2010, 11:05 AM

By Marc Liberts

Last year's Perseid Meteor Shower was amazing. For about 2 hours during last years shower, I saw between 80-120 meteors per hour! Every year, I drive up Hwy. 154 and stop either at the viewing area near Lake Cachuma, or all the way up into Santa Ynez or Figueroa Mountain. Included are a sky map to help, and an image I took last year of a Perseid Meteor flying low over the Brander Vineyard Chateau in Los Olivos, California.

If you want to just watch the Perseid Meteor Shower, bring a blanket or something really comfortable to lay on. Lay it out on the ground facing northeast and just look up. Bring something like a pillow to rest your head on. Sitting in a chair is ok but you'll find your neck getting sore because it is best to look directly up. Also, bring cold weather gear as it can get cold - especially up in Santa Ynez.

If you want to try to photograph the Perseid Meteor Shower, you must set your camera up for very long exposures. I set my camera for 30 second exposures, and I take pictures every 31 seconds. If you have a zoom lens, zoom out to about 20-24 mm to get the most sky in the picture you can. Do NOT zoom in. You want to be as WIDE as possible with your lens (18mm - 24mm is best). Make sure you have extra camera batteries and extra memory cards for the camera. Point your camera upwards in the general directions of North East (NE) & North North East (NNE). I suggest set your camera as follows:

First, set the camera to Manual;

Second, set the shutter speed to 30" or 30 seconds;

Third, set the ISO to 800;

Fourth, set the aperture to F 4.0;

Fifth, put the camera on your tripod (or a flat secure surface if you don't have a tripod);

Sixth, set the camera to MANUAL focus and focus on the stars and make them sharp;

Seventh, set the camera to its largest/finest picture size (you need every pixel to get the dim meteors);

Eighth, to keep the camera still, set the SELF-TIMER mode on your camera for 10 seconds (after you press the shutter you'll have 10 seconds to steady the camera for the 30 second exposure) - don't touch the camera after the shutter opens - only touch it after you hear the shutter click closed;

Ninth, snap away and pray. About 98% of the images will not have a meteor in them. I usually take about 400 pictures per night, and I usually get only 2-5 good images! So, be patient! You'll see meteors all around you! You just have to get lucky and hope one flys through your camera's viewfinder!

I suggest that you try and get some object of interest in the shot if possible. Also bring a flashlight to paint the object of interest. The way I got the chateau shot was to watch for meteors. If I saw one, I would turn the flashlight on and use the beam of light from the flashlight to paint the object of interest. Otherwise, the object will be dark unless it has its own light.

Below are 2 detailed excerpts from SpaceWeather and NASA about the Perseid Meteor Shower which will begin to peak tomorrow and Thursday.

PERSEID METEOR UPDATE: Earth is entering the debris stream of comet Swift-Tuttle and this is causing the annual Perseid meteor shower. According to the International Meteor Organization, observers are now counting as many as 25 meteors Perseids per hour during the dark hours before dawn. It's going to get even better: The shower is expected to peak on August 12th with rates as high as 100 per hour.

You know it's a good night when a beautiful alignment of planets is the second best thing that's going to happen. Thursday, August 12th, is such a night.

The show begins at sundown when Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent Moon pop out of the western twilight in tight conjunction. All four heavenly objects will fit within a circle about 10 degrees in diameter, beaming together through the dusky colors of sunset. No telescope is required to enjoy this naked-eye event.

The planets will hang together in the western sky until 10 pm or so. When they leave, following the sun below the horizon, you should stay, because that is when the Perseid meteor shower begins. From 10 pm until dawn, meteors will flit across the starry sky in a display that's even more exciting than a planetary get-together.

The Perseid meteor shower is caused by debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every 133 years the huge comet swings through the inner solar system and leaves behind a trail of dust and gravel. When Earth passes through the debris, specks of comet-stuff hit the atmosphere at 140,000 mph and disintegrate in flashes of light. These meteors are called Perseids because they fly out of the constellation Perseus.

Swift-Tuttle's debris zone is so wide, Earth spends weeks inside it. Indeed, we are in the outskirts now, and sky watchers are already reporting a trickle of late-night Perseids. The trickle could turn into a torrent between August 11th and 13th when Earth passes through the heart of the debris trail.

2010 is a good year for Perseids because the Moon won't be up during the midnight-to-dawn hours of greatest activity. Lunar glare can wipe out a good meteor shower, but that won't be the case this time.

As Perseus rises and the night deepens, meteor rates will increase. For sheer numbers, the best time to look is during the darkest hours before dawn on Friday morning, Aug. 13th, when most observers will see dozens of Perseids per hour.

Looking northeast around midnight on August 12th-13th. The red dot is the Perseid radiant. Although Perseid meteors can appear in any part of the sky, all of their tails will point back to the radiant. For best results, get away from city lights. The darkness of the countryside multiplies the visible meteor rate 3- to 10-fold. A good dark sky will even improve the planetary alignment, allowing faint Mars and Saturn to make their full contribution to the display. Many families plan camping trips to coincide with the Perseids. The Milky Way arching over a mountain campground provides the perfect backdrop for a meteor shower.

Enjoy the show!

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