• Jules-Pierre Malartre

The Naked Eye

The Constellation Perseus rising in the north-east late in the August 12 night sky. The Perseid meteors radiate from the constellation Perseus, but they can appear anywhere in the sky (image generated on SkySafari 5 for the iPad — see www.skysafariastronomy.com).

We’re halfway through the month, but it’s not too late to observe the two most important astronomical events of the year: The Perseid meteor shower and the partial solar eclipse.

Perseid Meteor Shower (peaks August 12)

Chances are you’ve already seen a few shooting stars streak by at night over the past few days. The Perseid meteor shower actually takes place over several days, but its peak (i.e., the moment when you can see the greatest number of meteors per hour) occurs August 12.

Meteor showers come from debris fields left behind by comets in the path of Earth. When Earth passes through the debris, the particles burn up in our upper atmosphere, creating beautiful streaks of light. Meteor showers are named after the constellations from which they seem to radiate. The Perseid meteors radiate from the constellation Perseus, but they can appear anywhere in the sky.

The Perseid meteor shower is probably the most popular event of its kind. Typically, around 80 meteors per hour can be seen during the shower, but some years have seen outbursts of up to 200 meteors per hour (like last year).

The 2017 Perseid meteor shower will peak around 1 p.m. on August 12, which means that the previous and the following evenings will be the best moments to see meteors.

You can probably see the meteors from your backyard if there are not too many street and porch lights on. If you’d rather join a group of other amateur astronomers, you can attend the public stargazing party hosted by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada at the Morgan Arboretum in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue. The event starts at 7:30 p.m. with a quick lecture followed by an evening of star – and meteor – gazing.

Partial solar eclipse (August 21)

You would have to travel to the USA in order to observe this spectacular total solar eclipse. The path of the eclipse will be a narrow one that will sweep across a number of states, from Oregon to South Carolina. While we will not be as lucky as our American neighbours, we will still be able to observe a partial solar eclipse from our latitude. Luckily, our region is one of the best areas in Quebec to view the partial solar eclipse. Approximately 60 per cent of the sun’s surface will be covered by the moon. The eclipse will begin around 1:21 p.m. and end around 3:50 p.m.

I cannot stress strongly enough the need to take all necessary precautions if you intend to watch the eclipse. Every time an eclipse occurs, numerous people end up being blinded because they relied on unsafe observation methods and equipment.

One of the best and safest ways to observe the eclipse will be to attend special events organized by qualified organizations, such as the one that will be held at the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium in Montreal (visit espacepourlavie.ca/en/august-21-2017-solar-eclipse for details). If you’d rather observe it on your own, make sure you use only proven, safe observation methods and equipment. You can visit the sun observation page maintained by the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium (espacepourlavie.ca/en/how-safely-observe-sun) to learn how to observe the eclipse safely and how to craft very simple yet safe observing equipment. Personally, I do not trust any direct method of observation, regardless of the quality or calibre of the equipment used. The safest way to observe a solar eclipse is by using a projection method, and the page listed above explains how you can make your own makeshift projection system, most notably the pinhole projection method using equipment that you can build out of an empty shoebox, a piece of aluminum foil and a white index card.