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Perseid meteors poised to peak

Perseid meteor, top, blazes through the Milky Way in August 2001.
Perseid meteor, top, blazes through the Milky Way in August 2001.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- The Northern Hemisphere should have great views Monday and Tuesday of one of the most rewarding natural fireworks shows.

The annual Perseid shower, characterized by bright, consistent and colorful meteors, is expected to peak overnight.

The best time for looking is the several-hour time period before dawn, when Earth's "front windshield" is overhead.

Can't get up that early? The Perseids usually start appearing around 10 p.m. Some of the early ones streak more slowly, providing longer and more spectacular meteors.

Warm weather friend

Because the Perseids take place in mid-August, they offer a striking contrast to the chilly nocturnal weather of November and December when the Leonids and Geminids take center stage.

The combination of nice conditions and picturesque meteors offer prime viewing pleasure, according to Gary Kronk, a longtime meteor watcher who hosts the Comets and Meteor Shower Web site.

"The Perseids stand out because they occur at the time of warm summer nights and because they produce a consistent annual display of bright meteors," he said.

The number of "shooting stars" has increased in number in recent weeks and are expected to culminate overnight with up to 80 streaks an hour.

While other showers might sporadically spawn higher numbers, the Perseids offer dependable yields of eye pleasures, often with persistent light trails that linger in the air.

Listen to the radio echo of a Geminid meteor  recorded by a NASA detection system

"The Perseids produce many bright blue-white meteors that usually catch the attention of people who are outside for reasons other than meteor watching," Kronk said.

"I have given many talks to schools, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts over the years and have found that a lot of people have seen the Perseids, without realizing they were seeing an annual event of nature."

The best time to watch the nightly exhibition begins after 2 a.m. when the constellation Perseus, from where the shower seems to originate, is highest in the sky.

A Northern perspective

People in the Northern Hemisphere have a good view of the Perseids, but their Southern Hemisphere counterparts have much less luck, because for them the constellation Perseus hardly rises above the horizon.

The Perseid meteors come from dust-size grains left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle, which every 130 years flies into the inner solar system. Most of the time the comet orbits beyond Pluto.

During August, the Earth moves into the comet debris trail, and the particles splat into the atmosphere, much like bugs hitting a windshield.

Rather than leaving behind a bloblike carcass, the Perseids disappear into a blaze of streaking light, incinerated by intense friction as they smack into the sky at speeds of about 37 miles per second (60 kilometers per second).

Bright lights are the bane of night sky watching; therefore, viewers should make sure to head to dark, open spaces far from cities for optimal viewing.




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