Astronomy for beginners – the Perseid Meteor Shower

It’s not that I intend giving out lessons on amateur astronomy for beginners, and I don’t own a telescope or anything, but I do like to notice interesting phenomena in the natural world, and that includes the heavens. The phases of the moon, Venus the evening star, the basic star constellations like the Plough and Casseopeia (the “W”). So contrary to popular belief, beginners can get a lot out of amateur astronomy without buying any expensive equipment at all.

And tonight, Sunday 12th August 2007 is the time when you have the best chance of observing a meteorite shower in the summer night sky above the UK and the northern hemisphere. That’s because it the peak of the time of year when the the Perseid meteor shower is set to light up the skies this weekend, making it easy to spot up to 15 shooting stars per hour. The astronomical phenomenon is caused by comet dust entering the earth’s atmosphere.

With no moon in sight to interfere with the view, amateur astronomy enthusiasts can expect to spot streaking fireballs from late on Sunday evening right up until dawn on Monday, regardless of which time zone you may be in. Astronomers estimate as many as 60 meteors per hour could splash across the sky at the shower’s peak and this year’s Perseid event comes with an added spectacle, Mars will be visible as a bright red dot in the northeastern sky.

How to watch shooting stars

Firstly you do need some luck with the local weather. You’re not going to see any stars if there is cloud cover. We’ve already arranged for the moon not to be visible, so you don’t need to worry about that.

The main problem is patience. If you stand outdoors looking up at the sky and nothing happens for several minutes then it’s only human nature to feel the pain in your neck, give up and go find something else to do. So you need to lie down on your back, somewhere comfortable where you won’t get a crick in your neck, damp in your clothes, sand in your hair or anything else which will put you off. A bit of company will help too, as a conversation in the dark will help to pass the time pleasantly without taking your eyes off the sky. The dying embers of a nice wood fire is best of all, with a belly full of outdoor food, a glass of cider or wine and nothing else to worry about you’ll be in exactly the right state of mind for meteorite watching. Once the first person from your party has gasped “OOH! I saw one I saw one” then the disbelief will be banished and everyone returns attention to the night sky.
Not being happily ensconced in a field this year, I’m not sure how far I’ll be able to adopt my own advice, and the sky is overcast at present. I may be walking around the large open space that is Wanstead Flats instead, late in the evening, I think that might be our best chance here.

Wherever you are, do let me know how you get on.

How many shooting stars did you spot?

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