Calling all Astronomers! Perseids meteor watch this week! #Meteorwatch

Things are changing. Really.

Internet technology allows people all over the world to connect and viralise information at speeds that would seemingly defy nature’s limits in the eyes of scientists just a few hundred years ago. For the first time ever, the annual Perseids meteor shower will be mass-tweeted by astronomers and enthusiasts worldwide. It’s an initiative proposed by the Newbury Astronomical Society (that’s here in England) and promoted as part of the International Year of Astronomy, and you can be involved!

Firstly, make sure you have a Twitter account. Then make sure you’re following me and the LoR Blog. Got you! Okay, that bit wasn’t essential, but it’s recommended. Definitely be sure to follow Newbury AS though.

Now, you’ll need to understand how hash-tags work. A hash-tag is a search term that you can attach to a tweet, instantly referencing the tweet with the term in Twitter’s database. During the Perseids meteor watch, we’ll be tweeting with the tag #Meteorwatch. By following that page you’ll be able to see the Tweets in real time as people all over the world report meteor sightings. So if it’s cloudy where you are, you can sit in and watch it all unfold online. Beautiful.

But how about contributing to #Meteorwatch? All you need is a method for tweeting when you’re out at your favourite dark-sky site. I can vouch for UK users being able to text their reports to Twitter, which is what I’ll be doing (unless I’m clouded in) but if you have a two-way service, that’s even better. Just make sure to update us on what you see, when you see it. And remember to add the tag to every single tweet, so that others can follow your involvement.

Now, at this point, most of you are asking: “What the hell are Perseids?”

Good question. Perseids are meteors (shooting stars) with a radiant in the constellation of Perseus. This means they appear to originate in the sky in Perseus and shoot out in all directions. Despite this, Perseus is not the best place to look, and I’ll cover that in just a moment. The shooting stars we see are caused by tiny fragments of comets being collected by the Earth at enormous speed and burning up in the atmosphere. In the case of the Perseids, the culprit is the comet Swift-Tuttle.

The Perseids are a particularly reliable and spectacular shower with a very high Zenithal Hourly Rate (ZHR) of around 100. You may not see any meteors for 5, or even 10 minutes, but on average you should see over one per minute throughout the watch. Personally, I find it much better a few come along at once anyway! But where should you look? Well, this can be more art than science sometimes. Based on previous experience with the Perseids, I recommend looking to the Summer Triangle – a very clear asterism in the summer sky, visible almost directly overhead at about midnight right now in the UK. The triangle contains three stars; Deneb, Vega and Altair, in the constellations Cygnis, Lyra and Aquila respectively. From Cygnus to Aquila, you should see shooting stars streaking down the Milky Way towards the horizon. I’ll be pointing my camera in this region whilst I’m out and recording the times of any I happen to catch. Photos will also be posted to Twitter (with the #Meteorwatch tag of course!)

Summer Triangle

To get the best view, you’ll need to block out the bright glare of the waning Moon. Try to position yourself with the Moon obscured by a tree or building. If you intend to take photos, make sure you have a remote shutter (so you can sit down and relax), and a tripod. Set your camera’s sensitivity (ISO) to its maximum setting (usually 1600) and expose for as long as you can without the sky becoming too bright. Depending on the level of light pollution, this could be anywhere from 15 seconds to several minutes. Make sure the aperture is wide open (lowest possible focal ratio) so that the camera can collect the maximum amount of light. Ultimately, astrophotography is as much trial and improvement as it is good advice. You’ll need to find the settings that work best for your observing conditions.

Above all, just have fun. The watch officially stars tomorrow (Tuesday) evening and continues until Thursday. The peak of the shower will be Wednesday. It’s a beautiful, humbling, romantic, thought-provoking experience. Don’t miss it!

By the way, I do have one last piece of advice. If you’re out in a field in the South of England and something behind you suddenly barks very loudly, don’t jump from your post screaming like a little girl. It’s just a badger. It er… happened to.. a friend of mine… once.

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