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Perseids: Meteor Shower to Yield 80 Meteors an Hour?

Anne Minard
for National Geographic News
Updated August 11, 2009
 
The Perseid meteor shower will have to fight it out with a bright moon for visibility this year, but astronomers are still predicting a dazzling Perseids show.

From any vantage point in the world, you might see more than 80 meteors an hour streak across the sky during the best viewing time, when the moon's glare will be weakest—late Tuesday night and into the wee hours of Wednesday, local cloud and lighting conditions permitting.

The highest concentration of Perseid meteors hitting Earth's atmosphere will occur Wednesday afternoon, when they'll be largely invisible.

The Perseid sky show is "always the best annual meteor shower," said Bill Cooke, the lead for NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office in Alabama.

"Visually, the best are the Geminids. But December nights are cold, and people don't want to freeze their rears off."

Perseid Meteor Shower Viewing Tips

The moon will provide some interference for the Perseids, at just over half full and rising around midnight. The best advice: Look away from the moon—and all other lights—so your eyes stay as dark-adapted as possible.

To see the Perseid meteor shower, bring a blanket to a place away from city lights and lay on your back, taking in as much of the sky as possible.

The Perseid meteors will appear to originate in the northeastern sky, near the constellation Perseus, and to shoot off in all directions, said Brian Skiff, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff (see animated star chart below).




"Since the radiant point is close to ... Perseus, it is common to see them streaking right along the Milky Way, even as far away as Sagittarius," he said. "After midnight, Perseus will have risen higher in the sky, and the meteors can be seen in just about any direction."

Perseids: More Than a "Geek Pickup Line"

The Perseid meteors are bits of 2,000-year-old debris left behind by the periodic comet Swift-Tuttle. Earth's atmosphere collides with the debris at more than 38 kilometers (23 miles) a second (comet facts).

(Related: "Comet Swarm Delivered Earth's Oceans?")

The meteors generally get incinerated before they can strike the ground, creating the streaks of superheated, glowing air we call shooting stars.

NASA's Cooke has made a career of studying meteors, but that wasn't always his primary reason for watching meteor showers, he said.

"It was the best way to get the girls out on a date," he said. "It was used as a geek pickup line back in my day."

In this day, the Perseids may be getting even more geek appeal. Astronomers accross the United Kingdom are prepping for "the worlds first mass participation meteor star party," on Twitter, according to the Royal Astronomical Society.

Inspired by May's Twitter Moonwatch, the Twitter Meteorwatch should feature a steady, Perseid-like barrage of shooting star photos, astronomy questions, expert answers, oohs, and ahs.

"We were amazed at how excited people were about our Twitter Moonwatch," said Richard Fleet, president of Britain's Newbury Astronomical Society, in a statement. "We had thousands of people who had probably never looked through a telescope before asking us questions directly and viewing images."
 

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