The annual Perseid meteor shower is expected to put on a great show this year, peaking in mid-August with a display of dozens of shooting stars each hour.
The Moon will be out of the way, leaving dark skies for good viewing as Earth plunges through an ancient stream of comet debris. Little bits, most no larger than sand grains, will vaporize in Earth's atmosphere, creating sometimes-dramatic "shooting stars."
"It's going to be a great show," said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. "The Moon is new on August 12, which means no moonlight, dark skies and plenty of meteors."
This year the Perseid meteor shower could deliver one or two visible streaks every minute during peak times, Cooke said in a statement yesterday. Urban skywatchers will see fewer due to local light pollution.
The meteors in this shower all appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus. The best times to watch will be late night Aug. 12 through dawn Aug. 13.
"The August Perseids are among the strongest of the readily observed annual meteor showers, and at maximum activity nominally yield 90 or 100 meteors per hour," said Joe Rao, SPACE.com's Skywatching columnist. "However, observers with exceptional skies often record even larger numbers."
To see the show, one need only find a comfortable spot with a clear view of the northeast horizon, away from local lights. A dark rural location is best. Lie back on a blanket or lounge chair and scan the entire sky. In the late evening, starting around 9 p.m. local time, sharp-eyed observers might see "earthgrazing" meteors that skim the northeast horizon.
"Earthgrazers are long, slow and colorful," Cooke said. "They are among the most beautiful of meteors." But don't expect more than a handful in an hour, he said.
Later and during the overnight hours, the shooting stars will be higher in the sky as Perseus rises. Some skywatchers enjoy counting the number of meteors they see per minute, per hour or during a 15-minute interval and comparing notes.
Telescopes and binoculars are no help, as the meteors move too swiftly and are best observed with the naked eye.
The cosmic rivers of debris have been laid down for millennia by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which passes through the inner solar system every 130 years. Perseid meteoroids are exceptionally fast, entering Earth's atmosphere at roughly 133,200 mph (60 kilometers per second) relative to the planet, slamming into the air like bugs hitting a windshield.
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