August 12, 2010

Perseids Set To Give Spectacular Show

The annual Perseid meteor shower this week is predicted to be a grand event with peak viewing times Thursday night August 12 into the early pre-dawn hours Friday August 13.

According to NASA, the shower may produce a display of up to 80 meteors an hour.

For best views of the event, experts are urging spectators to get as far away from city lights as possible.

The Perseid meteor shower has been ongoing for about a week and peak times were set for Wednesday night into Thursday morning, and then again Thursday night into Friday morning. The Perseids will continue with good numbers for some nights following the peak show, and occasional meteors may continue through the end of August.

The Perseids, named for the direction in which the meteors appear to hail from (constellation Perseus), are actually caused by debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle.

About once every 133 years, the huge comet makes a pass through the inner part of our Solar System and leaves behind a trail of dust and rocks. When Earth passes through the debris trail, fragments pelt our atmosphere at 140,000 miles per hour and disintegrate into flashes and streaks of light.

This year's peak occurs just after a new Moon, which means there will be no extra light provided by the lunar satellite to spoil the show. The relatively warm summer nights would also make this meteor shower one of the more comfortable ones to watch. Anyone with clear, dark skies away from urban and suburban areas should be able to see 60 meteors per hour, possibly stretching to as many as 100 per hour.

Meteors can appear in any part of the sky, but all of their tails will point back to the Perseus radiant. The best views of the meteor shower are likely to be in the Northern Hemisphere.

"If you want comfort, this is the shower to see," said Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

The absolute best viewing time is expected to be from midnight Thursday through the pre-dawn hours on Friday. The meteors should be visible every night from now through next week. At its peak, observers could see at least one meteor every minute. 

You just have to know where and when to look -- and the experience goes much more smoothly if you make a few preparations.

Counting meteors is as easy as lying in a lawn chair or on a blanket on the ground and marking on a clipboard whenever a meteor streaking across the sky is seen. Watching for the meteors consists of lying back, gazing up into the heavens, and waiting. It is usually best to watch the point halfway between the radiant (which will be rising in the northeast sky) and the zenith, although its easy and perfectly fine for your gaze to wander.

A bonus showing during the Perseid meteor shower will be three bright planets that will be tightly clustered just after sunset now through the heart of the shower. Venus, Mars and Saturn are easy to spot in the southwestern sky as soon as darkness falls.


Image Caption: Perseids meteor shower. Image credit: Jimmy Westlake