The haze of city lights makes it nearly impossible to see the stars, but even New Yorkers can count on spotting a few fireballs during the Perseid meteor shower from Saturday 11 through Sunday 12. The annual event, known in astronomy circles as the Old Faithful of showers, occurs when Earth’s orbit intersects with the trail of grit left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. These bits of space dust burn incandescently bright when they enter our atmosphere. Joe Rao, meteorology expert for the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium and senior on-camera meteorologist for News 12 in Westchester County, shared some tips on how urbanites can enjoy the display.
When to watch
The peak of the shower, when you will see the highest concentration of meteors, will occur between 3 and 5am on Sunday 12—but viewers should see sparks before then. Rao suggests heading out around 10pm to situate yourself, but make sure you’re prepared for a long night. “There are only two dangers to keep you from seeing the Perseid meteor shower: being drenched in dew and falling asleep,” says Rao.
What to bring
Fortunately, the Perseids are visible to the naked eye, but if you must bring additional equipment, leave your telescope at home—it will just restrict your view of the sky. Instead, grab a pair of binoculars: The magnifying lenses will help you quickly zoom in on the meteors and follow the vapor trails that they leave behind.
Where to look
Set your gaze on the northeastern part of the sky, where the constellation Perseus (for which the shower is named) is located. This group of stars will rise in view throughout the night, but avoid concentrating on any one spot, as sightings tend to occur sporadically. “Just keep looking around,” says Rao. “There will be lull periods when nothing much is happening, but eventually a meteor will come through your line of sight.”
Where to go
“The most important thing about [seeing] the Perseids is to make sure you’re in a place that is as dark as possible,” says Rao, noting to avoid lofty structures or trees that can obstruct your view of the shower. For those who can’t escape the city’s tall buildings and ambient light, head onto a rooftop to glimpse a wide swath of sky above the city’s street lamps.
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Scope out celestial bodies all year long
Stargazing on The High Line
This popular weekly event, organized by the Amateur Astronomers Association and Friends of the High Line, is ideal for first-time observers. Volunteers from the AAA set up as many as ten telescopes through which curious onlookers can gaze at planets and parts of the moon. Summer months provide the optimal time to see Saturn and Mars, and Jupiter will glow bright in late October. Follow @highlinenyc for updates on Twitter. Enter Tenth Ave at 14th St (212-206-9922, aaa.org/highline). Tue at dusk; free. Through October.
Columbia Astronomy Public Outreach at Pupin Hall
The Astronomy Department at Columbia University sponsors this bimonthly event, which features a half-hour lecture followed by a 90-minute rooftop stargazing session. Departmental volunteers operate two permanently mounted 14- and 16-inch-aperture telescopes and a 12-inch Dobsonian, which have larger-than-normal light gathering capabilities so you can peer into outer space in greater detail. On Friday 10, graduate student Lauren Corlies explains NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and its moons. 550 W 120th St at Broadway (212-854-4608, outreach.astro.columbia.edu). Fri 10 at 8pm; free.
AAA Observing at Floyd Bennett Field
Since 1972, AAA has trekked to this former airfield in Gateway National Recreation Area to look for fainter nebulae, galaxies and open clusters. Its remote location on Jamaica Bay provides some of the darkest skies, and thus best stargazing plots, in the city. 50 Aviator Road, Jamaica Bay, Brooklyn (718-643-0959, aaa.org/floydbennett). Dates and times vary; free.
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