The most reliable of stellar delights, the Perseid Meteor Shower, sparkles in the night sky every August as Earth passes through debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. These "shooting stars," which are gearing up for their biggest show in the coming days, are the result of space particles from the comet encountering the thin upper atmosphere of Earth at extremely high speeds and, thus, heating to incandescence.
Scientists predict the Perseid display to be at its best across North America starting this weekend, with a peak between Aug. 12 and Aug. 13. Prime viewing each night will generally take place between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. when the meteor shower will be high above the horizon, but avid star-watchers caution to allow at least 30 minutes for eyes to adjust to the dark.
“During the weekend of August 10-August 11, Perseid meteors will be visible near a rate of 20 to 40 per hour, depending on the time of night and your viewing conditions,” the American Meteor Society noted. “Perseid meteors can be seen in all parts of the sky. One can tell they are Perseids as their paths will all lead back to the constellation of Perseus. If it doesn’t, then you have just witnessed one of the 10 or so random (sporadic) meteors that are visible each hour during the morning hours.”
There are also minor showers this time of the year from the constellations of Capricornus and Aquarius, which the American Meteor Society said will add a few extra shooting stars to the mix.
Because eight out of 10 Americans are now urbanites who might not have the best view of the sky from their front stoop, we’ve compiled a look at some star-watching havens and Perseid Meteor Shower events this weekend within easy reach of the 10 biggest metropolitan areas in the U.S.
New York City
About an hour and a half west of New York City -- past the suburban sprawl of northeastern New Jersey -- you'll find Jenny Jump State Forest, home to the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey's Greenwood Observatory. A dedicated group of amateur and professional sky watchers provide free public programs with special guest lecturers each Saturday evening throughout the summer beginning at 8 p.m. If you live in New York and really want to geek it out this weekend with a group of highly intelligent science nerds, this is your spot.
Less than two and a half hours east of Los Angeles is the surreal Joshua Tree National Park, an excellent dark spot from which to stargaze. If you want to see the stars with live ambient music, food, “out-of-this-world raffle prizes” and a crowd of fellow enthusiasts, the Mojave Desert Land Trust will host its extremely popular (and often sold out) Perseid Meteor Shower Star Party on Saturday in Landers, Calif., just outside the park boundaries. The event this year features live images from deep space, projected by the Southern California Desert Video Astronomers.
Less than two hours from both Chicago and Milwaukee is the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. This University of Chicago-operated observatory, which calls itself "the birthplace of modern astrophysics," will run a special Perseid meteor show program Sunday night from 8:30 to 11:30 where participants can use small telescopes and observe a variety of astronomical sights. The Yerkes Observatory also runs free public tours each Saturday morning if you want to get in the mood ahead of time.
The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club will hold two public viewings this weekend, both on Saturday evening. One event hosted by Sean O’Brien of the National Air and Space Museum will take place at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Va., about an hour west of the nation’s capital. Another group will gather about a half hour south of there at C.M. Crockett Park in Midland, Va. Both events are from sundown to around 11 p.m., and visitors are encouraged to bring their own telescopes or binoculars.
Several regional organizations, including the Gloucester Area Astronomy Club, will host stargazing parties this year. Other great dark-sky spots near Boston include Veasey Memorial Park in Groveland, Boston Harbor Islands, the Cape Cod National Seashore and the back roads of Western Massachusetts.
San Francisco residents who don’t want to test their luck at Lands End or Twin Peaks have two nearby viewing parties in Santa Clara County to choose from this year. Calero Reservoir just south of San Jose will host an evening under the shooting stars from 8:30 to 11:30 Saturday, while Ed Levine County Park will hold a Shower Talk from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Night owls can join Ranger Chris Crockett at Coyote Lake-Harvey Bear Ranch County Park from 2-6 a.m. on Aug. 13, the Perseid meteor shower’s expected peak, for yet another viewing party.
About 30 minutes outside of town, Valley Forge National Historical Park is a good bet for dark skies in greater Philly, but if you want to make the four-hour hike to Coudersport, Penn., Cherry Springs State Park claims to be one of the best spots in the eastern seaboard to catch the star show. The park will offer Solar Viewing from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., followed by a laser-guided Night Sky Tour and viewing sessions of the meteors, planets and other deep space objects visible through the park's telescopes.
Everything is bigger in Texas, and the 500-member Texas Astronomical Society is unlikely to disappoint with its Starfest Star Party on Saturday at Frisco Commons Park, about 30 minutes north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. Astronomers will set up about a dozen telescopes for the free event, which begins at dusk and concludes around 10:30 p.m.
Head about an hour south of Houston to the Museum of Natural Science’s George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park for a special Perseid Meteor Shower Viewing Party that begins at 9 p.m. Saturday. The observatory will remain open until 2 a.m., and tickets to view the night sky through the 11-inch refractor and other large domes will be available from 9 p.m. to midnight for $5 per person.
The search for clear skies will take the Atlanta Astronomy Club two hours northeast to Brasstown Bald, Georgia's tallest peak, for a full weekend of dark sky observation. The crew will hold a dark sky observing session for $3 per person (the fee to access the parking lot), though several strict lighting rules apply. The Cloudland Canyon State Park, two hours northwest of Atlanta, will also hold a star party on Saturday with video presentations and telescopes for public viewing.