Best Night To View Perseid Meteor Shower Is Aug. 12

July 23, 2001

The Perseid meteor shower, one of the best celestial treats of the year, will be visible in night skies throughout Colorado in early August.

The natural fireworks will be most active Aug. 8-15, peaking Aug. 12 during the early morning hours between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. when more than 50 meteors per hour could be visible, according to experts at the Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"The best way to view the Perseid meteor shower is to get away from city lights and set up a lawn chair facing northeast where the constellation Perseus will be visible," said Francisco Salas, program supervisor at CU-Boulder's Fiske Planetarium. "The key to viewing a meteor shower is taking in as wide a view of the night sky as you can, so make sure to lean back in your lawn chair."

Weather permitting, viewers should see meteors flashing over the entire sky. Viewing is best when the sky is darkest and viewers should avoid using binoculars and telescopes, which narrow the field of vision, he said.

The Perseid meteor shower is named for the Perseus constellation from which the meteors, or shooting stars, appear to radiate, and it occurs every August. On other nights during the year, only five to 10 meteors per hour can be seen.

Meteor showers occur when the Earth crosses the path of a comet, sweeping through debris left behind along the orbit. Millions of chunks of ice and dust make up the tail of a comet. These chunks of space junk might be as small as a pea and travel through the solar system at more than 36,000 miles per hour.

"A meteor shower is sort of like driving a car through a snowstorm, with the Earth as the car and the chunks of space junk as the snow," Salas said.

The Perseid meteor shower is caused by the Earth passing through the tail of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which is in orbit around the sun. The chunks of space junk that make up the tail are only seen as meteors when they come close to the Earth and enter the atmosphere, he said.

"So when somebody sees a Perseid meteor streaking across the sky they are actually seeing bits of the comet, which could be as small as a pea," Salas said. Most meteors melt down and boil away many miles above the Earth, high in the atmosphere.

The moon will be a quarter full and will add some extra light "pollution" to the night sky that may limit the viewing of some meteors, Salas said.

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