This time of year, the Perseid meteor shower delights skygazers with peak views in mid-August. One of the finest showers of the year, it occurs when Earth passes through a debris trail left by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Tiny fragments from the comet fall into our atmosphere and light up the sky with fiery streaks of light, displaying a brilliant celestial scene for sketching.
A clear protractor is easy to handle and allows you to view the chart below while plotting the meteors.
All images by Erika Rix from the 2015 Perseid meteor shower
The shower should generate close to 100 meteors per hour during its peak, which occurs this year on August 12. As a bonus, the Moon will set shortly after 1 a.m. that morning, treating us to dark skies until daybreak for optimal viewing.
You can use a number of techniques to draw a meteor shower. For instance, you can depict the starfield and surrounding landscape as Perseus (from which the Perseids appear to radiate) hovers above the horizon. But keep in mind that the constellation will continue to rise, so try to complete the sketch in under an hour, before the scene changes too much.
The original sketch on August 13, 2015, 06h0m–10h0m UT (peak morning for the shower), used a gnomonic projection to show the meteor paths as straight lines.
Another method, as shown in my examples, is to omit the landscape and use a gnomonic chart for the starfield. Gnomonic maps depict “great circles” — such as those that meteors traverse — as straight lines, which will simplify your sketching efforts. As Perseus rises, you can continue with the sketch. Charts from Gnomonic Atlas Brno 2000.0 are available on the International Meteor Organization’s website at www.imo.net/visual/minor/gnomic/atlas. I printed the chart that centers on the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia (brno-01.pdf) and then attached it to my sketch board along with a dimmable red light.
The clean version of the sketch from August 13 shows sporadic meteors and ones from minor showers, in addition to the Perseids, for a complete picture of the event.
I arranged my observing area for sketching, meteor watching, and comfort. In addition to my prepared sketch board, I included a zero-gravity lounge chair with a pillow and blanket, a small table to set my supplies on, a thermos of hot cocoa, and a sketch kit sporting only the bare essentials: a protractor (clear and easy to handle), several sharpened #2 pencils, a pencil sharpener, and a large blending stump.
Before you begin, familiarize yourself with the chart until you can quickly match its stars with the sky above. Next, rub the tip of your blending stump through a patch of graphite and use it to draw the Milky Way and naked-eye objects (if you observe any) on the chart.
This sketch from August 14, 05h20m–09h20m UT, shows the day after maximum. The top half of the sketch shows more meteors because Perseus was still low in the sky when the observing session began.
Record the date and time, and then begin your meteor watching. With each flash, you’ll want to concentrate on its starting and ending points, its estimated magnitude on a scale of 1 through 5, and its color. Use the protractor and pencil to draw an arrow onto the chart marking its direction, position, and length, followed by the number and letter representing its magnitude and color. Be sure to include relevant notes along the way and record the time your observation ended.
Afterward, using the original sketch as a reference, use a new sheet of paper to draw a clean version that sports only the stars and meteors (plus the Milky Way and any other naked eye objects you spotted). After scanning the new sketch, you can invert it to reveal a striking rendition of your night under the fiery sky.