for National Geographic News
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The annual Perseid meteor shower, which peaks tonight, is poised to maintain its reputation for putting on a stellar show.
"It is really easy to view the Perseids compared to other meteor showers. Just put on some mosquito repellant and go outside," said Bill Cooke, a meteor-shower expert with the Space Environment Group at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
A nearly moon-free night and a predicted dense concentration of comet debris are combining to make this year's Perseids even better than usual, several astronomers are reporting.
Meteor showers occur when Earth orbits through trails of dust shed by comets on their repeated trips through the solar system. The tiny bits of debris, no larger than a grain of sand, light up when they strike Earth's upper atmosphere. In the process, they create what are commonly referred to as shooting stars.
The Perseid meteor shower officially peaks at 7 a.m. ET on Thursday, August 12 and astronomers say the best time to catch an eyeful of shooting starsabout 50 to 60 per houris from midnight to dawn.
"It's a very reliable shower. You can bet your bottom dollar that people will see meteors," said Mark Bailey, director of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland.
The Perseids are known as fast and bright meteors, as Earth encounters them almost head-on, Cooke said. They enter Earth's atmosphere at a velocity of about 37 miles (60 kilometers) a second.
Astronomers around the world are particularly excited about the predicted encounter at about 5 p.m. ET on August 11. That's when Earth will enter a relatively young, and thus dense, filament of dust that boiled off comet Swift-Tuttle in 1862. Swift-Tuttle is the parent comet of the Perseids.
The encounter may produce an outburst of mostly faint meteors visible over Europe and Asia. Some predictions place rates as high as 200 meteors per hour. Sunlight will obscure these meteors for viewers in North America, but many other Perseids should be visible in the region.
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