Where to see a meteor shower
Where will you be between midnight and 4am on August 13? If you plan to be tucked up in bed with the curtains drawn, think again, because you might be missing out on a truly cosmic experience – a rare unspoilt view of a spectacular meteor shower.
There is something magical about catching sight of a shooting star as it streaks across the night sky. So imagine the thrill of looking up to see dozens – maybe hundreds – of shooting stars as they rain down from the darkness.
That’s what will happen on the second weekend of August, when the Perseid meteor shower hits earth. At the height of the action, a shooting star will light up the night sky every few seconds.
This astonishing natural firework display occurs as the earth passes through a trail of debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which last swung into our solar system in 1992. Tiny grains of dust and ice will collide with the earth’s atmosphere at speeds of up to 30 miles per second, each creating an arc of incandescent light.
The phenomenon occurs every year, but 2007 will be special because the arrival of the Perseids will coincide with a new moon. Usually, moonlight makes it difficult for the human eye to pick out most of the individual meteors, but against a velvety-black sky the display will be mind-blowing.
To view the Perseids, you don’t need any special equipment or expertise, but you do need to get as far as possible from the light pollution that blights much of modern Britain. With the meteors visible across large parts of the northern hemisphere, it’s worth plotting your whereabouts: countryside or beach; the Highlands of Scotland or the Greek islands?
Dr Francisco Diego, an astronomer at University College London, suggests heading south for longer nights and increased chances of cloudless skies. “Almost anywhere in the Mediterranean should be ideal, as long as you are away from artificial light,” he says. “Morocco and Tunisia would also be wonderful.”
Diego will be in the Canaries to accompany a group of 20 astro-tourists, who will spend three nights on the island of La Palma, viewing the meteors from the rim of an extinct volcano, the site of one of the world’s most important observatories.
The trip is being organised by the tour operator Explore, which says it is taking bookings from amateur astronomers and regular travellers looking for a holiday with a difference. Diego suggested La Palma for the six-night trip because of the island’s reliable climate and almost complete lack of light pollution.
“We’ll be staying at sea level, but viewing from the observatory at Roque de los Muchachos, which is on the rim of the crater at 2,400 metres. It’s an incredibly dramatic location, literally above the clouds. The altitude is a key factor because most of the dust and smoke that normally obscures our view of the night sky is in the lower atmosphere. We’ll be above that.”
Although La Palma promises peerless views of the Perseids, it should also be possible to see them from locations across the UK and Ireland. Rob Edwards, head of science education at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, says anyone with a “reasonably clear sky” should get a view. “Just go outside with a deckchair, blankets and a flask of coffee. Avoid looking at any artificial lights. It will take your eyes anywhere between 30 seconds and 30 minutes to adapt fully to the dark.
“It’s not essential to go somewhere remote. I expect to see meteors from my back garden in west London.”
The view will improve as the night progresses and the earth turns, pointing us in the direction of the oncoming meteors. “It’s like driving your car into a rain shower,” explains Diego. “You get more raindrops on the front windscreen than on the back window.” Because of this, the best time to see the shower will be between midnight and dawn. Hence the need for caffeine.
Clear, dark skies should also provide sensational views of the galaxy beyond. “If you get well away from city lights, you ought to be able to see the Milky Way clearly – a great cloud of 300 billion stars,” says Edwards. “It’s well worth taking a pair of binoculars and just enjoying the view.” With a telescope you may also be able to study Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.
WHERE TO SEE THE SHOW
Astronomical events are being planned across the country over the four days of galactic activity. The University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Alderley Edge (01477 571339, www.jb.man.ac.uk), will host a Perseid Meteor Shower Party on August 11. Admission by ticket only: adults £6, children £5.
In Herstmonceux, East Sussex, the Observatory Science Centre (01323 832731, www.the-observatory.org ) is planning a Perseid Shooting Star Evening on August 11, from 7pm to 10pm, with a guest speaker, barbecue and a chance to use the centre’s telescopes. Tickets £19.50.
How to catch the falling stars
THE PERSEIDS will be visible on clear nights from about August 10 to August 15, peaking on August 13. For the best views, avoid smog, cloud and light pollution. The second half of the night, between midnight and dawn, should provide the best of the action, with two or three meteors visible every minute. The meteors will appear to radiate from a single point in the sky – the constellation of Perseus – well above the horizon, towards the northeast.
Take a deckchair, hot drinks and warm clothes. Use binoculars for stargazing, but the naked eye to scan for meteors. And don’t fall asleep. Viewing conditions won’t be this good again until 2015.
The Forestry Commission is getting together with the Scarborough and Ryedale Astronomical Society to hold a Nightwatch on August 11 at Dalby Forest, North Yorkshire. As well as meteors, there will be a chance to spot bats and owls. Meet at the Dalby Forest Visitor Centre (01751 460295) at 8pm with a torch and warm clothes.
At Cairngorms National Park, mountain rangers will lead midnight hikes to the top of the plateau, leaving Coire Cas Base Station at 9pm on August 11 and 12. The walk is classified as difficult, and only for adults and children over 12 with experience and suitable equipment. Prices from £20; booking essential (01479 861341, www.cairngormmountain.org ).
In Cornwall, Roseland Observatory (01726 813602, www.roselandobservatory.com ), near St Austell, will hold an alfresco star party on August 13, with a presentation and barbecue. You can camp on site, from £12.50 per night (01726 822727, www.courtfarmholidays.co.uk ).
Hotels that experience only very low levels of light pollution include the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel (01691 870692, www.lakevyrnwy.com ), on a forested hillside in Montgomeryshire, which has double rooms from £100, B&B; and the Bay Hotel (01326 280464, www.thebayhotel.co.uk ) in the village of Coverack, on Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula, where £69 per person buys dinner, bed and breakfast.
The trip to La Palma with Explore (0870 333 4001, www.explore.co.uk ), which also includes two nights in Tenerife and a visit to El Teide National Park, costs from £1,175, including flights from London, accommodation and breakfast.