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Summer shower on tap, from space

Meteor flies over Hahn's Peak, Colorado, during a previous Perseid shower. A colorful aurora adds to the light show.
Meteor flies over Hahn's Peak, Colorado, during a previous Perseid shower. A colorful aurora adds to the light show.  

By Richard Stenger

(CNN) -- The most viewer friendly meteor show in the Northern Hemisphere is quickening its pace, peaking next week in its display of colorful light streaks.

The Perseids take place in mid-August, offering 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 Perseids slowly have increased in number in recent weeks and are expected to culminate overnight Monday and Tuesday with up to 80 "shooting stars" 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.

"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."

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

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

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

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

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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