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Catch the Perseid Meteor Shower’s Fiery Show

Though the moon will partially obscure the normally dazzling sight, the shower’s peak is still worth a peek

A meteor from the Perseids is seen falling over the Very Large Telescope array in Chile. (European Southern Observatory)
smithsonian.com

On top of this month's eagerly awaited solar eclipse, astronomy aficionados will have another good reason to look up with the return of Perseid meteor shower.

Seeming to emanate from its namesake, the Perseus constellation, the fireballs streak across the skies in August each year when Earth passes through the long trail of cosmic dust flowing from Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This swirling ball of ice and dust—remnants from when our universe formed—was discovered in 1862 and forever changed how we thought about the streaks of light that zip across the sky.“This is one of the first comets that really convinced people that there was a direct link between certain comets and meteor showers,” James Zimbelman, a planetary geologist with the National Air and Space Museum, told Smithsonian.com last year.

Before that discovery, the bright lights of the meteor showers and other astronomical events had long inspired shock and dread in many people, Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, writes in a blog post"Upwards of 100 lay prostrate on the ground [...] with their hands raised, imploring God to save the world and them," Cooke quoted from an 1833 account of seeing the Leonids meteor show in South Carolina. "The scene was truly awful; for never did rain fall much thicker than the meteors fell towards the Earth."

Since those days, the Perseids have wowed stargazers, even inspiring the creation of John Denver's hit song "Rocky Mountain High." Unlike many other meteor showers, they also take place in the warmth of summer, and over an extended period of time, allowing people the opportunity to relax and watch them without worrying about hypothermia.

This year's show, however, will not be as impressive as in the past, Cooke tells Sarah Lewin of Space.com, thanks to the meddling Moon. Our lunar partner will be at three-quarters full and rising late this weekend, and the bright reflection of the Sun's light off the Moon will likely obscure at least some of the Perseid's show at its peak.

But don't despair. "[T]he good news is that the Perseids are rich in fireballs; otherwise the moon would really mess with them," Cooke tells Lewin. Though the meteors will appear to fall at about half the rate as prior years, viewers can still expect to see around 40 to 50 meteors per hour​. 

If you want to see this stellar show, prepare to stay up late and find a comfortable spot outside to look up. In the United states, the meteor shower will peak at 1 PM EST on August 12, so viewers will get their best chance of seeing the fireballs in the wee hours of August 12 and 13.

Californians and those in the West will likely have the best view of the show, according to the Weather Channel, with clear skies predicted during the shower's peak. But rain and thunderstorms may obscure the celestial happenings in other parts of the country.

So if you happen to be awake in the hours just before sunrise this weekend, head outside and see if you can spot the fiery show.

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