Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Perseid meteor shower: Best places and times to see the spectacle

The Perseid meteor shower that will peak Thursday night and Friday morning is expected to be unusually bright and visible in the night sky this year because moonlight won’t be hampering the celestial show. The best time to watch will be from midnight to dawn, and the best place to watch will be any dark-sky spot you can find.

Some places to check out:

Lake Tahoe: For the fourth year, the Squaw Valley USA resort will open its High Camp area for a Perseid Meteor Shower Mountaintop Campout to watch meteors streaking through the sky. Campers will arrive between 5 and 6:30 p.m. Thursday and take the cable car up to stake a spot at the 8,200-foot perch that overlooks Lake Tahoe.
The night’s activities will include a sunset hike around nearby peaks, a briefing on telescopes and a campfire. Meteor watching will begin at 10 p.m. and continue throughout the night. Campers can also grab a continental breakfast before taking the cable car back down between 8 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Friday.
Southern California: If you don’t have time to drive up to Lake Tahoe, consider going to Joshua Tree National Park east of Palm Springs or Mt. Pinos on the border of Ventura and Kern counties. For other optimal viewing spots, go to “See the Perseid Meteor Shower in Southern California.”

Red Rock Canyon State Park: Yes, it's another desert location, but like Joshua Tree the nighttime views are well worth the daytime heat. The park, at the southernmost tip of where the Sierra Nevada mountain range converges with the El Paso Range, has only one campground, Ricardo Campground, which is tucked up against the base of White House Cliffs. The sandstone cliffs make the night sky spectacle that much more dramatic.

Mount Pinos: This 8,831-foot peak on the border of Ventura and Kern counties is far enough from any major light sources to offer a great dark-sky view of the meteor shower. But you don't have to make the steep hike to the summit. Most amateur astronomers go to the tree-bordered parking lot about two miles east of the peak.

Kennedy Meadows: This campground sits at 6,100 feet above sea level along the South Fork of the Kern River in the Southern Sierra Nevada. It's a favorite among trout-hunting anglers but star gazers also rank it as one of the best places in the country for getting an undiluted view of the night skies. Although getting to his campground is quite a trek, visitors will be rewarded with a spectacular view. Directions: From U.S. 395, just north of the Inyo County line, take Ninemile Canyon Road west for about 25 miles and follow the signs to Kennedy Meadows. The campground has 38 sites, bathrooms and running water. Overnight fees: $5. A small general store operates on the road just outside the campground.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park: California's largest state park on the eastern end of San Diego County is another great dark-sky desert park far from the glare of city lights. Local astronomy buffs congregate at the campgrounds in Culp Valley, about 10 miles southwest of the park's visitor center along County Road 22.
What to expect:

How spectacular will the show be? When you look and where you stand will determine what you see. And if there’s a cloud cover, all bets are off, so hope for clear skies.
Check out the Fluxtimator, a Java application on NASA’s website that claims to allow you to calculate the expected shower rate for a given date and a location. Using that application, I found that the the most meteors per hour are expected to occur at 5:08 a.m. Friday. If you’re in downtown Los Angeles, it indicated that you can expect to see fewer than seven meteors per hour. if you’re on a mountaintop somewhere near L.A., you could see as many as 96 per hour.
If you want to hear what meteor showers sound like, Spaceweather Radio broadcasts the radar echoes of meteors passing — ping! — in the skies above Texas.
Online chat: Got questions? NASA astronomer Bill Cooke at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., will conduct an hourlong online chat starting at noon Thursday. Sign up for the chat here.



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