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Outer space showcase: A prime event for socially distanced enjoyment, the Perseid meteor shower will peak Aug. 12 and 13

The Cosmic Campground in the Gila National Forest provides stunning views of the night sky. The campground is closed to the public right now, but sightseers can still visit the area. (Courtesy of David Thornburg)

Social distancing doesn’t have to mean an end to all summer fun.

New Mexico’s vast, unencumbered view of the night skies provides the perfect setting for stargazing. The annual Perseid meteor shower is currently lighting up the night sky and will peak Wednesday, Aug. 12 and Thursday, Aug. 13, when the moon is about half full. The most important condition for witnessing the shower is darkness. The meteor shower is best seen in the wee hours of the morning but can be seen starting about midnight.

The pandemic has essentially put an end to public viewing parties, but finding a nice dark area to view the meteors is key.

Thankfully, the best way to view a meteor shower is with the naked eye, as a telescope or even binoculars can obstruct the view.

Meteors originate from meteoroids, which are like space rocks. Earth encounters these rocks as it passes through trails of dusty debris left by a comet. Meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speed and burn up. The fireballs – more commonly called shooting stars – are meteors. The Perseid shower was created by the comet Swift-Tuttle and its name stems from Greek mythology.

The shower appears to come from the constellation Perseus near the famous double cluster, although it is a chance alignment. Perseus the Hero was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal princess Danae. Her father locked her away in a tower to prevent a prophecy from coming true that predicted he would one day be slain by his grandson. Legend has it the annual event marks the time when Zeus visited Danae in a shower of gold and impregnated her.

Here’s a few ideas on where to view the meteor shower, which will be visible until about Aug. 24.

Your backyard

Pull up a lounge chair or a blanket and wait for the show. Those who live on the outer edges of the metro area, away from light pollution, will get a better view.

West Mesa

Take a drive up the hill west of Albuquerque to enjoy some darker skies. The mesa has plenty of secluded spots to view the show.

Capulin Volcano

The Capulin National Monument in the northeast part of the state is a popular area for stargazing. The monument has been designated a gold-tier viewing location by the International Dark Sky Association. There are no sponsored star parties or camping right now, but it is still open to the public. There is a viewing area in the parking lot that is mostly away from the trees and offers a perfect spot for catching the falling stars.

Cosmic Campground

The Cosmic Campground sits in a highly desirable area for viewing night skies. It was the first Dark Sky Sanctuary in the Northern Hemisphere because of its excellent viewing conditions. It’s located in the Gila National Forest not far from the Arizona border, and there is no artificial light for nearly 25 miles in every direction.

The actual campground is closed to the public right now, but sightseers can still visit the area, according to Erick M. Stemmerman, district ranger in the Gila National Forest. He said dispersed camping is available in the general area. Visit cosmiccampground.org, for more information.

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