Our sky map for August 2016 is a free and printable star chart to see stars and constellations in the night sky, from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.
The Perseid Meteor Shower!
This month, we welcome the Perseid meteor shower to our skies! The Perseids are one of the best meteor showers of the year, and they reach their peak on the night of August 12 to 13.
Click-and-Print Sky Map
Just click here or on the image below to open the printable map—then bring outside!
The meteors from a meteor shower can appear in any part of the sky, and the Perseids are no exception. So a map is not really necessary or even desirable to view the Perseids. Far more important is WHEN and HOW you look. Here are some tips.
Best Time to See Perseids
The peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower will be on the nights of August 11 and 12. You’ll see some meteors in the late evening, but prime time will come after 1:30 a.m. local time. That’s when the Moon will set, and the sky will become darker. For the next 3 to 4 hours, the sky will be at its darkest, allowing you to see the most meteors.
If you have to pick one outing, go for the predawn hours of August 13. By then, the Moon is low in the west, and its light will not wash out the meteors.
Perseid meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, so your best viewing strategy is to recline or lie on the ground and look toward the darkest region of the sky. You will want to get as far away as possible from manmade light. Every bit of unwanted light pollution will reduce the number of meteors you can see. Though you will likely want to have a flashlight with you, cover its lens with a piece of translucent red plastic or even paper. Red light won’t spoil your night vision as white light will. You’ll see more meteors.
The ideal viewing location is one without nearby trees or structures that block your view. If your view is obscured in some directions, simply look toward the most wide open and darkest part of the sky that is visible from your location. Remember: The meteors can appear in any part of the sky!
Take care to be comfortable. To prevent straining your neck, you may want to recline in a chaise lounge or lie on the ground with a sleeping bag under you. Be prepared for cool temperatures. You’ll be surprised at how chilly it can be under the open sky, even in mid-August.
Bring family and friends to watch the Perseids with you. There will be lulls when no meteors appear for time, and it’s easier to stay motivated when you are part of a group.
Observing meteor showers is one of the simplest astronomy adventures. Just get comfortable and look up!
How many meteors do the Perseids bring? See our Meteor Showers Calendar.
August 2016 Sky Map
Sky map produced using Chris Marriott’s Skymap Pro
How did the Perseid Shower Get Its Name?
The Perseid Meteor Shower gets its name from the constellation Perseus, the Hero of Greek myth. When Perseid meteors streak across the sky, and you follow their trails backward toward their origin, the meteors all seem to come from the region of the sky where the constellation Perseus is located. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but they all appear to be moving away from Perseus. During the peak hours of the meteor shower, the constellation Perseus will be in the north-eastern sky, but again, the meteors can appear anywhere and everywhere. When viewing the Perseid Meteor Shower, you may also notice so-called sporadic —meteorsmeteors that do not appear to originate from Perseus’ part of the sky.
What Exactly are Meteors?
Also known as shooting stars, meteors appear as brief streaks of light when small objects called meteoroids plunge into Earth’s atmosphere. Friction with the atmosphere heats the meteoroids to the point where they burn up, each creating a bright flash that we call a meteor.
Nearly all meteoroids are smaller than a pebble, although the majority are no larger than a grain of sand. Occasionally, however, a meteoroid striking the atmosphere is large enough that it does not burn up completely and parts of it reach the ground. These surviving fragments are known as meteorites. Thus, each particle can be described in three ways. When moving through space, it’s a meteoroid. When we see it burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, it’s a meteor. If any part of the object survives its fiery passage through the atmosphere and reaches the ground, it’s a meteorite.
On any clear night, far from city lights, you can expect to see only a few meteors per hour. Several times a year, however, Earth passes through streams of cosmic debris. When this happens, we see it as a meteor shower, and the number of meteors jumps dramatically to anywhere from 10 to 100 meteors per hour. In the case of the Perseid meteor shower, Earth encounters debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. As Earth plows into the debris, each little particle appears in the sky as a momentary streak of light—a meteor.
When to See the Milky Way
Any time you are outside on a midsummer night, also look southward for the Summer Milky Way. Its position is highlighted on this month’s sky map. Our solar system is located in the Milky Way. From our vantage point within the galaxy, it appears as a long, misty cloud of light arching from the southern horizon to high overhead. It glows with the combined light of billions upon billions of faraway stars, each too faint for our eyes to resolve. These myriad stars all together produce the soft glow that we see as the Milky Way.
You will need a dark location to observe the Milky Way in all its glory. Artificial light and even moonlight will spoil the view. From a properly dark viewing site, you can see that a portion of the Milky Way is separated into two bands with a dark area between them. The dark area is the Great Rift, a colossal band of cosmic dust and gas that hides part of the Milky Way and appears to divide it in two.
The best opportunity for enjoying the Summer Milky Way is after 11:00 p.m. in the first week of August and again in early September.
Enjoy astronomy? Check out “This Week’s Amazing Sky” column!