With the persistent cloudy skies of the Northwest, about the only time that Whatcom County residents can just about guarantee they can observe celestial events such as eclipses, auroras and meteor showers is mid-summer - a perfect time for a "star party" to watch the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks next week.
A few Perseids are streaking through the sky now, in advance of the Aug. 10-13 peak. Perseid meteors are bits of debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle, about the size of a grain of sand or smaller, and the Earth passes through the comet's tail about this time every year. Perseids are among the Northern Hemisphere's more prolific showers, usually producing about one visible meteor a minute.
Viewers don't need any special equipment like binoculars or a telescope, just an open area with a view of the horizon - especially the east and northeast - and skies that are free from the glare of light pollution.
Best viewing is around midnight or the wee hours before dawn, but this year a full "supermoon" on Aug. 10 may wash out the sky, making all but the brightest "shooting stars" difficult to see. A supermoon - a perigee full moon in astronomical terms - appears about 14 percent larger and about 30 percent brighter because the lunar orbit is elliptical and is sometimes closer to Earth.
Perseid meteors appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, which is about 25 degrees of elevation in the northeast sky, depending on the time of night. For the best chance of seeing meteors, look between the radiant (Perseus), and the zenith (the point in sky directly above you).
Before heading outside, see when the International Space Station will make its next orbital pass by entering your location at NASA's Spot the Station website.
For comfort, dress in layers and bring a blanket or folding chair, plus snacks and a cooler or Thermos for drinks. A flashlight with a red lens, or lens covered in red cellophane, can help preserve night vision; remember, even a mobile phone glows brightly enough to ruin your "night eyes." It may take up to 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.
Possibly the best local meteor viewing would be during a backpacking trip in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Park or the North Cascades National Park. Places with great campsites that include views of the high peaks include Yellow Aster Butte and Park Butte, which also has a restored ranger station that's available free on a first-come, first-served basis.
Meteor-chasers also flock to the parking areas along the Mount Baker Highway, from the blacktop near the Bagley Lakes trailhead to the Heath Meadows visitor center and the east end of the road at Artist Point, with its sweeping, 360-degree vista.
If you're parking or camping in the national parks, you'll need a seasonal Northwest Forest Pass $30 or a $5 day-use pass.
See a short video of Perseids with Mount Baker in the background at youtube.com/watch?v=0WKm-DBAyfY.
Whatcom Association of Celestial Observers plans star parties at Artist Point at 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 16 and 23. Members bring their telescopes and allow novice stargazers to view various phenomena.
Orion Telescopes and Binoculars, which sells celestial observing equipment, offers a free monthly star chart on its telescope.com website.
A detailed celestial calendar is available by mail for an $11 annual fee from Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. See an example of the Sky Calendar at this website.