Meteor-watching at the Grand Canyon
August 5, 2008 8:37 PM   Subscribe

I'll be at the Grand Canyon during the peak of the Perseids. Help me make the most of the experience.

For the first time ever, I won't be in a major city during a meteor shower -- in fact, I'll be camping with a couple of friends at the Grand Canyon on the night of August 11th, which is when the Perseids are supposed to peak. What should we do to get the most out of the experience?

From what I've read, the meteors gain in frequency after around 11 p.m., peaking right before dawn. But what does "right before dawn" mean? According to the U.S. Naval Observatory website, this is the sunrise data for the Grand Canyon on August 12th:

Begin civil twilight 5:17 a.m.
Sunrise 5:45 a.m.

I'm assuming that means the sky starts to get light at 5:17, and the sun actually starts to appear at 5:45. So then when should we aim to see the shower? Should we just stay up late that night and watch them at around 11? Should we wake up before dawn and watch both the meteor shower and the sunrise? (How early would we have to do that?)

And, on a more Grand-Canyon-specific note, where should we go to do either of those things? We'll be staying at Mather campground, and we'll have a car.

Finally, if we manage to screw this up and somehow miss the peak, is all lost or will there still be an impressive show the next night?

Thanks in advance!
posted by pluckemin to Science & Nature (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I just got back from Rocky Mountain National Park, a place where the sky is probably equally clear as it will be where you're staying. Even without the benefit of the shower having begun, I saw 12 shooting stars in a total of roughly 15 minutes of concentrated sky-gazing.

From recent experience, the horizon will start to show signs of sunrise at around 4:45, though significant lightening of the sky won't begin until around the time you mentioned. I've watched the Perseid shower before and I found that if you go out at 11, you'll get tired before the show really begins. 2 AM to 4 AM is really the time to be out there.

The shower lasts for several days, and I doubt the following day will be significantly different in terms of the volume of meteors, so don't worry if something prevents you from seeing them on the night of the eleventh.

Being in an area as dry as the Grand Canyon means that you're unlikely to specifically witness the phenomenon of alpenglow like I did, but the usual redness of sunrise combined with the hue of the rocks there will probably make for an equally outstanding sunrise. I wouldn't miss that! Given the time-span in which you'll want to watch the meteors, though, it seems like a reasonable thing to stay up for.

I can't answer any Grand Canyon specific questions, but I hope you have a great time skywatching. Cheers!
posted by invitapriore at 9:34 PM on August 5, 2008

You'll want something to lie down on, so you can watch the sky without getting a cramp in your neck, and ample clothes/blankets/sleeping bags to keep you warm. Maybe a thermos of coffee, some snacks, some music to listen to. Get away from the lights (if the campground has all-night lighting) and trees so you have a clear view of the sky. Let your eyes become completely adapted to the dark — this means avoiding looking at lights or using a flashlight. Extra points if you can see all the stars in the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, as this means seeing is excellent and your eyes are well adapted. Then just watch the show.

Expect a slow parade of meteors around midnight, picking up to faster displays, then disappearing as the deep-black sky begins to lighten in the twilight before dawn. Whether you want to stay up and watch all night depends on your patience and sleep pattern. Do you like staying up late? Stay up. Do you like to go to bed early and get up early? Go to bed and set the alarm for the wee hours. Or (here's an idea!) sleep out in the open, appointing one of you to stay awake and wake the rest of you when the shower is going full blast. For local information (good location to go to watch) ask the rangers and information desk where astronomers like to set up their telescopes. Clear skies!
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:53 PM on August 5, 2008

Wow, you're in for a treat. I saw the shower sleeping along the river down in the canyon. The canyon walls sort of letterboxed the sky and the results were spectacular. I wouldn't worry about the frequency. The fact that you're so far away from lights of civilization will amplify the effect of even the smallest streaks. I just remember staying up through the night watching the show.
posted by lpsguy at 10:05 AM on August 6, 2008

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