[Though the 2010 Perseids are behind us, you can still use this guide for planning to watch other meteor showers later in 2010 and next year; plus, you can plan ahead for next year's Perseids. For my latest column on watching another celestial phenomenon, check out this column on where to watch the Northern Lights.]
Where is a good spot for some star-gazing?
That’s an especially relevant question, with the 2010 Perseid Meteor shower nearly upon us. Some of the best viewing conditions in years are forecast for the peak: Late August 11 to the wee hours of August 13.
What has Perseid stargazers so excited in 2010? The moon – only a tiny sliver during the height of this year’s shower – will be below the horizon. That means skies will be about as dark as possible – and stars will be as bright as possible. At its peak, as many as 120 “falling stars” per hour may be visible.
Where is the best place to watch the meteor shower? Here is a list, heavy on viewing locations in the Western Hemisphere, where I know best:
1. The consensus pick seems to be Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The skies are invariably clear here, and the ocotillo-studded desert is very sparsely populated. Mount Laguna, which overlooks the desert, is possibly even better. San Diego State University operates a small observatory there.
2. Professional star-gazers swear by the 13-telescope complex at Mauna Kea observatory, atop the Big Island of Hawaii’s big volcano. The Visitor Information Station’s Onizuka Center for International Astronomy will be open for the occasion, and expert astronomers will be on hand to answer questions (this excellent article addressed a lot of mine). In my experience, however, Mauna Kea is too often cloud-bound.
3. The sparklingly clear skies above the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and northern Mexico also offer ideal conditions. But the area has been a bit of a battleground lately in the immigration and drug trafficking fights.
4. In South America, Chile boasts some of the best viewing locations – especially the desolate Atacama Desert. Bring water; it hasn’t rained there in more than 50 years!
5. “Color Country” in southern Utah – the high mountains above Zion National Park, west of Bryce Canyon National Park and north of the Grand Canyon North Rim – are remarkably beautiful viewing areas. The skies are generally pollution-free, and pitch-black.
6. Oregonians swear by the wide open spaces near Bend and Sun River, especially up in the mountains. Sun River even has a small observatory, but in my experience, it is too often closed.
7. Speaking of observatories, CalTech’s Palomar Mountain Observatory north of San Diego, boasts one of the world’s finest telescopes. But the facility is closed to the public after 4:30 p.m., so as not to interfere with ongoing scientific studies. But there is a campground on the darker east side of the mountain, where star-gazers traditionally gather to watch the night skies.
8. Historic Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff, Arizona, is open – and offering several programs around the meteor shower. The hard-core star-gazers cluster at the famed meteor crater near Flagstaff. Everyone has their fingers crossed for clear skies. (Lowell also operates telescopes in La Serena, Chile, and Australia.)
9. Joshua Tree National Park, north of Palm Springs, California, also offers almost a guaranteed prospect of clear skies and a dark night, far from the light pollution of cities.
10. What is purported to be the darkest spot in the eastern United States is at remote Cherry Springs State Park near Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The park attracts East Coast star-gazers year-round, and a popular annual event here is the Black Forest Star Party.
Star-gazing is, to me, the ultimate democratic exercise: Anyone can do it. And when you wish upon a star, it makes no difference who you are.
August 8, 2010