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Perseid meteor shower set to put on a great show

You can expect to see up to 100 “shooting stars” per hour when 2013’s best meteor shower peaks before dawn August 12.
RELATED TOPICS: METEOR SHOWER
August 2013 Perseid meteor shower finder chart
The waxing crescent Moon sets well before the prime viewing hours begin at the peak of 2013's finest meteor shower, the Perseids. Astronomy: Roen Kelly
If you ask most skygazers to name their favorite meteor shower, the odds are good that “Perseid” will be the first word out of their mouths. This annual shower seemingly has it all: It offers a consistently high rate of meteors year after year; it produces a higher percentage of bright ones than most other showers; it occurs in August when many people take summer vacation; and it happens at a time when nice weather and reasonable nighttime temperatures are common north of the equator. No other major shower can boast all four of these attributes.

And this year’s Perseid meteor shower promises one other significant advantage: It peaks under a Moon-free sky. From mid-northern latitudes, the waxing crescent Moon sets shortly after 10 p.m. local daylight time on the 11th. As always, you’ll see more meteors at a viewing site far from artificial lights.

Senior Editor Michael Bakich of Astronomy magazine loves watching meteor showers, particularly spectacular ones like the Perseids. “It has to be one of the easiest, most relaxing forms of entertainment available to backyard skygazers,” he says. “There’s no need for a telescope because optical aid narrows your field of view, and you want to take in as much sky as possible. And best of all, you can observe the spectacle while lying down. Who could ask for more?”

The Perseids begin as tiny specks of dust that hit Earth’s atmosphere at 37 miles per second (59 km/s), vaporizing from friction with the air and leaving behind the streaks of light we call meteors. The meteors appear to radiate from a spot on the border between the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus (the latter gives its name to the shower). This so-called radiant lies about one-third of the way from the northeastern horizon to the zenith (the overhead point) around midnight local daylight time and climbs higher as dawn approaches.
How to observe meteor showers video
Enjoying a meteor shower requires only comfort and patience. Senior Editor Michael E. Bakich gives tips on spending a night under "shooting stars" in this video. Click on the image to go to the video.
If predictions hold, observers across eastern Europe and northern Asia could witness 100 meteors per hour if they watch under clear dark skies. Viewers in North America should see up to 80 meteors per hour — still an average of more than one per minute — in the hour or two before twilight starts to break shortly after 4 a.m. local daylight time. If cloudy skies prevail on the 12th, look on the morning of the 13th, when rates will be somewhat lower but still impressive.

Fast facts:
  • The dust particles that create Perseid meteors were born in the comet known as 109P/Swift-Tuttle. This object orbits the Sun once every 130 years; it last returned to the inner solar system in 1992.
  • Although 37 miles per second (59 km/s) may seem fast, Perseid meteors are not the quickest among annual showers. The Leonids of November top the charts, hitting our atmosphere at 44 miles per second (71 km/s).
  • Although most shower meteors meet their demise high in Earth’s atmosphere, at altitudes between 50 and 70 miles (85 and 115 kilometers), a few bigger particles survive to within 12 miles (20km) of the surface. These typically produce “fireballs” that glow as bright as or brighter than Venus.
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