The Moon is always the game-changer. We want dark conditions. At least 2009 brings no out-all-night, sky-ruining Full Moon like last summer. Instead, at nearly Last Quarter, the Moon rises about two hours after sunset. Result: Tuesday's darkest skies are between 9:30 and 10 p.m. That's when to look for meteors. Figure on catching ten or 12 shooting stars during that half-hour: not too bad.
If you're an insomniac and decide to observe during the peak hours of 1 to 4 a.m. early Wednesday morning, the Moon will probably limit them to about 30 an hour. So early or late, it's nearly a wash. Connoisseurs could observe at both times.
We need clear weather. Meteors are always 50 to 90 miles up, no exceptions: much higher than clouds. Haze or a layer of cirrus is murder on meteors. If you can't see the Milky Way, many of the shooting stars will also be invisible. If only the brightest stars appear that night, poking through cruddy haze, forget the whole thing.
As for the best site, we'll want to get away from any large town, as well as streetlamps and even window lights. The site should have no overhanging trees or obstructions blocking the heavens. The more sky, the more meteors.
But if perfection is not available, no need for Prozac. A few distant lights or the glow from neighbors' windows won't do much harm. And so what if we miss a few? We're looking for shooting stars, not the long-awaited return of the Dog Star mothership.
If you've spread a blanket or lawn chair - always the best way to watch Perseids - and are out there with a date, friends or family, and have clear skies and a good location, you're set. The only rule is to keep eyes glued upward. This is why lying down is so important. When sitting or standing, people tend to keep looking at each other while conversing; they glance up only from time to time. This is the primary meteor-missing no-no.
Perseids are the fastest major meteor shower. At 37 miles per second, each typically appears for a single second - two tops. They try to cross the sky when people aren't watching; it's a sort of game for them. When someone in your group shouts, "Look at that!" it's already too late to swivel your head. Eyes fixed to the sky are the key.
Tracing back each meteor's path takes you towards the constellation Perseus. This mythological hero ascends in the northeast, to the left of the rising Moon. But five or six meteors an hour won't come from that direction. These are the strays, the sporadics: meteors that, unlike Perseid members, do not originate from comet Swift-Tuttle. Sporadics are often brighter and have different colors or unusual speeds. They just don't fit in. This makes them exciting to recognize.
A slower-moving Perseid with a very short trail is a meteor coming straight toward you. It's heading towards your blanket. Might this one kill you? No way. Not a single Perseid has ever been known to survive its passage through the atmosphere.
As to what it is, the blazing streak is simply super-hot air surrounding the incoming meteor. The actual meteoroid is only the size of a large sand grain, or a raisin at best: too small to see.
Although meteors are silent, occasional reports of simultaneous hisses or crackles are no longer dismissed as delusions. Air ionization creates radio noise, and some people can apparently perceive this electromagnetic radiation. The underlying neurobiological mechanism is a mystery.
Radio signals from Perseids, beamed to your head? Maybe. Stick around Woodstock or New Paltz long enough and you may even get a buzz from passing meteors. Or perhaps it's just mosquitoes.