for National Geographic News
Unlike short-lived solar eclipses or unpredictable auroras, meteor showers regularly offer skywatchers a dazzling show.
Soon the curtain will rise on one of the best of these showers: the Perseids, so called because the meteors appear to originate in the constellation Perseus.
Slated to peak sometime during the night and early morning of August 11 to 12, the shower offers one of the year's best chances to see a shooting star.
Under perfect conditions, observers can expect to see about 90 to100 meteors an hour, said Wayne Hally, a self-professed "meteor geek" who writes a newsletter for the North American Meteor Network.
Hally spends a few hundred hours a year watching for meteors from his base in northwest New Jersey.
The stargazer said he expects the Perseids to have a sustained peak over several hours this year.
"Based on last year's results, it appears that the actual peak was not at a specific time but lasted a day and a half surrounding that date," Hally said.
"The peak [this year] might be the whole night."
A Blaze of Glory
Meteor showers happen regularly when Earth plows through a stream of dust and small rocks trailed by a comet after its close approach to the sun.
(Related: "Meteor Dust May Affect the Weather, Study Says" [September 13, 2005].)
109P Swift-Tuttle, the comet responsible for the Perseid meteor shower, orbits the sun every 133 years. The comet last made a close approach in 1992, resulting in a spectacular meteor shower with rates four times higher than average.
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