Tonight is the beginning of an annual cosmological event: The Perseid meteor shower, which will see the night's sky covered in streaks of light in a dramatic celestial show. Here's a video of the shower from 2013:
What is the Perseid meteor shower?
The meteor shower is an annual event as every year the Earth passes through the debris from a comet called Swift-Tuttle as we pass around the sun. According to the BBC the comet shed this material long ago, but we're still encountering the rubble that has been left behind.
The reason why we see streaks of light is because as these remaining lumps of rock (which can be as small as a grain of sand) hit the Earth's atmosphere, they heat up the air around them. They're known as the Perseids because, due to the way we see them from ground, it appears that the streaks are all radiating from constellation Perseus. (Even though they are obviously much closer than the stars that make up the constellation.)
How can I see it?
What's brilliant about this year's shower is that it coincides with a new moon on August 14th meaning that the sky will be nice and dark, and the tiny streaks of light won't be obscured by a massive, great big moon ruining everything. Though we technically experience the shower for about a month every year, the shower tends to peak around now.
The good news is that you don't need a telescope to get a look - you should be able to see between 60 and 100 meteors per hour with the naked eye at the shower's peak at around 2am every night, assuming you're in a dark area and not the West End of London.
Exactly when and where to look in the sky depends on your location and the time of night. TimeAndDate.com has produced this helpful chart as an example (don't forget your phone has a compass app that can probably help!):
Broadly though, you need to be looking into the North East part of the sky (assuming you're in the northern hemisphere). Universe Today has produced the following graphic showing the constellations and how to identify the radiant - the central point of the shower from our Earthly perspective.
An app like SkyView will do some of the hard work for you.
What's the best way to photograph the Perseid meteor shower?
First things first, make sure you're somewhere very dark. Head out into the countryside and away from the lights of towns and cities, which will pollute your photos.
You're going to want a tripod as there's no way you'll be able to hold you camera steady for a long exposure.
Assuming you've got a DSLR camera, according to Saugus, the best settings are to have the F-stop setting just short of wide open, and the ISO set low to minimise noise on the image.
In terms of how long to leave the shutter opens, it reckons that the optimal time could be about 30 seconds - a longer exposure risks blurring due to the rotation of the Earth (!).
A wide angle lens will be best for capturing the most sky possible.
It is also recommended that you get a device which will let you trigger photos without touching your camera. Hitting the shutter will cause a tiny shake in the camera, which could mean blurry photos when your subject is so far away. For most modern DSLRs you can pick up a remote trigger that works over infrared for less than £10, or you could even use an app on your phone if your camera supports it.
Our pals at Digital Camera World also recommend fiddling with your camera settings to reduce mirror bounce for the same reason. What this does is delay the actual shuttering for a second - the camera can settle after the mirror physically moves inside.
Image Credit: Dominic Alves on Flickr