Don't miss the meteor shower

Jorge Duenes  Reuters

The ramp up to the peak begins overnight Friday into Saturday morning, but the greatest number of visible meteors comes over the weekend.

"The shower is the second strongest of the year, rich in fireballs, and only the December Geminids are better (but night is much colder and not so comfortable to observe)", Bill Cooke, a meteor expert at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, told NBC News MACH in an email. And conditions for viewing the meteors will be next to ideal this year.

The meteors appear to shoot off of the constellation Perseus, which is how they get their name. More meteors are visible the higher this radiant rises.

The comet whose tail creates the Perseus shower is called 109P/Swift-Tuttle, and is named after the US astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, who discovered it in 1862. The comet is the largest object known to repeatedly careen by Earth, with a nucleus of 16 miles wide. Shooting stars could happen every minute.

Part of the reason the Perseids really sizzle in the summer sky in the northern hemisphere isn't the seasonal heat, but rather their speed, which can be almost 60 kilometers per second (134,000 miles per hour).

Jay Bjerke, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Astronomy Club, said the best location to view the meteor shower will be away from city lights.

How to see the Perseid meteor shower peak this weekend
Don't miss the meteor shower

If you're counting meteors, notice there are times when numerous meteors are visible followed by a near absence of activity.

While the comet may only come back every 125 years, the actual debris field fills the entire loop of the orbit of the comet, he explained. This almost two-month spread suggests that comet debris has spread widely since Swift-Tuttle first passed though the inner solar system thousands of years ago. The Perseid are essentially a collection of dust and small rocks left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle.

I'm often asked what part of the sky is best to watch. You can tune in at any time to watch the show, and the last four hours of the stream will remain archived and viewable after the broadcast is complete. The longer you're outside in the dark, the better your vision of the meteors will be.

Plan on spending a few hours outside?

In summary: this weekend, check out a dark location, let your eyes adjust and look to the northeast.

Roy Gephart is a retired environmental scientist and an avid amateur astronomer.


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