Get the most out of the meteor show

This year’s Perseid meteor shower is shaping up as a beaut. The big night is next Thursday, but anytime now is a great time for skywatching – not only to see shooting stars, but to see the planets as well.

The Perseids are among the year’s best-known meteor showers, especially for mid-northern latitudes. Here’s why: The show begins ramping up in late July and hits its peak around Aug. 12-13, when it’s usually pleasant to hang around outdoors in the northern hemisphere. Perseid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, which is high up in the sky at about 3:30 a.m. in northern latitudes – prime time for meteor watching.

But the big attraction comes down to how many shooting stars you can see: During this time of year, Earth plows through the trails of space grit that have been laid down by Comet Swift-Tuttle as it makes its 130-year orbit around the sun. When those particles of grit zip through the upper atmosphere, they heat up and create those bright streaks we all know and love.

Fortunately for meteor-watchers, there’s a lot of grit out there…

Skywatchers have tracked the Perseids for centuries….The sky conditions are nearly ideal for this year’s show, because the moon will be just a few days past its new phase. When the moon is full, its glare overwhelms the meteor flashes in the night sky, making viewing problematic. But this year’s crescent moon will be far below the horizon by midnight, when the meteor show enters prime time.

I’ve already seen one phenomenal fireball. It was an evening with a solid – but high up – overcast. A beautiful red fireball dropped from the bottom of the overcast and followed a visual track just as if it was a flare dropped from an airplane. Which meant it was proceeding directly away from me.

Stayed solid and glowing red till it disappeared beyond my sight line. Over the apparent horizon which, in my case, was a line of hills less than 10 miles away. Outstanding.

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