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Meteors light up night sky

A Perseid meteor photographed on Saturday in Florida
A Perseid meteor photographed on Saturday in Florida  

LONDON, England -- Star-gazers are enjoying a "spectacular" celestial light show as the Earth ploughs through a thick cloud of comet dust.

The annual Perseid meteor shower, which could be seen in the early hours of Tuesday, caused shooting stars to trail across the sky at a rate of up to two a minute. The light show is expected to be repeated on Wednesday.

Robin Scagell, of the UK's Society for Popular Astronomy, told the UK Press Association: "We've had quite a good night observing and we have seen some really bright and spectacular meteors.

"We've seen one every couple of minutes on average, which is about what we would expect for conditions here where the sky is not as dark as it might be out in the country."

The Perseids, which have mystified and terrified sky watchers for nearly 2,000 years, are so named because they appear to emerge from the eastern constellation of Perseus.

The meteors are small bits of debris shed by a huge six-mile-wide comet, Swift-Tuttle, that sails into our Solar System from a distant region of space beyond the planet Pluto every 135 years.

When the Perseid particles hit the top of the Earth's atmosphere at 135,000 mph they become glowing hot and appear as bright shooting stars criss-crossing the sky in all directions.

Ten years ago Swift-Tuttle passed the Sun, and it is now heading back towards the far-off Oort Cloud on the outer edge of the Solar System, which is home to millions of similar comets.

The earliest record of the Perseids can be traced as far back as 36 AD in the annals of China's Han Dynasty.

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

In medieval England they were called "the burning tears of St Lawrence" that fell from the sky every August around the anniversary of the saint's martyrdom by the Roman emperor Valerian in 258 AD.

Gary Kronk, host of the Comets and Meteor Shower Web site, told CNN: "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.

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


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