Astronomy wags love to point out that things like comets and meteor showers don’t pay much attention to the predictions of experts. This does not dissuade said prognosticators from making their forecasts. This year astronomers say the annual Perseid meteor shower may well be even better than usual, thanks to geometry and a gravity assist from Jupiter.
“Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11–12,” said Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour.”
Keep in mind that you won’t see that many if you stay in the city, where all but the brightest of the meteors will be washed out by light pollution. But you’ll still be able to enjoy some shooting stars in your own backyard. That’s where I usually watch for Perseids (my back yard, not yours!).
The predicted peak is in the early morning hours on Friday, August 12.
We’re often asked where the best places are to go to see meteors or other cosmic objects. I’ll break out the answer for in-city, and away.
Within the city
You’ve got to get at least 30 miles or so from the center of a city to get away from the effects of light pollution. But some areas in a city are better than others. As a general rule, find places away from direct light. You also want to be able to see as much of the sky as possible. Large city parks are often places where both of those things can happen. For example, the Seattle Astronomical Society holds monthly star parties at Green Lake in Seattle and Paramount Park in Shoreline, where the viewing is a little better than it is next door to an automobile dealership. Other sources cite Lincoln Park and Solstice Park in West Seattle, and Jefferson Park on Beacon Hill as good places to see the stars. Parks on the water can be good; water is flat and there aren’t as many lights out on a lake or harbor.
One thing to keep in mind about parks are the official hours. Green Lake is a 24-hour park, while Jefferson and Lincoln parks are listed as open from 4 a.m. until 11:30 p.m., as are most Seattle city parks. Paramount Park is open “dawn until dusk” according to the Shoreline website. Perhaps city officials can be persuaded to waive early closures for special circumstances like meteor showers.
Be careful when you’re out at night in the parks.
Outside the city
Get away from the city lights and your stargazing prospects improve. One of the closest spots to do this is on Bainbridge Island. The Battle Point Astronomical Association has set up its planetarium and observatory in Battle Point Park on the west side of the island. Shielded a bit from the city and in a large, open space, the skies there are pretty good, given the proximity to Seattle. As a bonus, you may well find BPAA members there when there’s a meteor shower.
National Parks are great places to find dark night skies. Two spots that are great for stargazing are Sunrise Point on the way to Sunrise in Mount Rainier National Park, and Hurricane Ridge south of Port Angeles in Olympic National Park. Area astronomy clubs often use Sunrise Point and the Olympic Astronomical Society holds regular events at the Ridge. Alice Enevoldsen of Alice’s Astro Info also recommends Staircase campground on Lake Cushman near Hoodsport on the southeast side of Olympic National Park, and Lake Ozette campground way up near the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. For that matter, most anyplace out on the coast will be good. The beach will offer good horizons and it’s pretty dark out there.
Head east. Going out I-90 and into the mountains, perhaps into Eastern Washington, can offer nice, dark skies and better weather. One of Enevoldsen’s favorites in the Lake Kachess campground just past Snoqualmie Pass. Take exit 62 from I-90. Last year Alan Boyle of Geekwire wrote an article about the Perseids and suggested Elk Heights Road off I-90 east of Cle Elum. That’s getting to be a bit of a haul for Seattle-area stargazers. If you’re really up for a drive, head to Goldendale. It’s super dark there, and the Seattle Astronomical Society holds star parties twice each year at Brooks Memorial State Park, just a bit north of town. While you’re out there visit the Goldendale Observatory State Park on a bluff above the city. There’s also a scenic overlook of the Columbia River on I-90 just a bit past Vantage with spectacular views and dark skies. One might find countless good spots along the Gorge between the last two.
Pack it in
My first experience with the Perseids was a memorable one. When I was 12 years old and on a backpacking trip with my father and Boy Scout troop, we slept out under the stars on a crystal-clear night in an open field just west of the village of Holden. We had no idea about the Perseids, but saw a constant stream of them through the night. It was a most memorable evening. This post from two years ago tells that story. So, while you might not be up for a hike to Holden, the wilderness offers most excellent viewing opportunities.
Wherever you go, find a lot of sky, look to the northeast after midnight, and enjoy the Perseids.
Here are some maps to selected stargazing sites. Have a suggestion? Email us and we’ll check it out!