Image: Perseid
Ali Jarekji  /  Reuters file
A Perseid meteor streaks past a field of stars in the night sky over Jordan's desert in the early hours of Aug. 12, 2002. The stars appear as streaks because of the camera's long exposure time.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 8/12/2004 1:19:48 PM ET 2004-08-12T17:19:48

The annual Perseid meteor shower passed its prime with flying colors Thursday, as observers around the world oohed and ahhed appreciatively over the cosmic sparks. The show continues nightly for the next several days, although with diminishing returns.

Not all the reviews were glowing: In some areas, clouds or haze spoiled the view, while other locations simply offered a lackluster show. A hoped-for outburst of meteors over eastern Europe and western Asia didn't fully materialize, according to reports from Finnish astronomer Esko Lyytinen.

But most of the assessments were at least in line with expectations.

"I was pretty impressed," Chris Parker reported via e-mail from Sacramento, Calif. He spotted 55 meteors in the roughly 1:15-2:11 a.m. PT time frame, relatively early in the peak viewing period.

"I was really impressed with the coppery orange color that they displayed," Parker wrote. "Overall, this was probably the best Perseid shower I've seen."

Robert Lunsford, operations manager for the American Meteor Society, reported a peak hourly rate of 97 meteor spottings between 2:45 and 3:45 a.m. PT from his California viewing spot. "During the five-hour watch I ended up with 291 Perseids, a bit shy of what I had hoped for, but I'll take it over being totally cloudy the entire night," he wrote in an e-mail.

On the Meteorobs online forum, Arlene Brill reported that "a good time was had by all" in western Turkey, where meteor showers are described as "yildiz yamor," or "star rain." She said the show was "lovely," although it didn't quite match her memories of a 1998 Perseid display.

"Tonight, I'm taking a neighbor and his niece and nephew about a mile from the village to a totally dark area to see what we can see," she wrote Thursday.

Perseid meteor activity should continue nightly for at least the next week or so, but the intensity and number of shooting stars fall off rapidly after the peak.

Meteors and memories
The Perseids are so named because they appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus. They flare up every year in mid-August when Earth plows through the trail of dust and debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which crosses Earth's orbit every 130 years. Swift-Tuttle's most recent pass occurred in 1992.

This year's Perseids are flashier than last year's because the moon is a mere crescent — which poses relatively little competition for the celestial streaks. In contrast, last year's Perseid show was washed out by the glare of a full moon.

For many, meteor-watching has become a tradition reinforced by warm memories. Here are a few reminiscences from users:

Rich Sabatowski: "My birthday is Aug. 13, and as long as I can remember, my dad and I would lay on our picnic table in our back yard and await the exciting shooting stars.  It was and is a very special thing for me.  My 35th birthday coming up, and several miles are between my dad and I, but he took a minute to call today to make sure I had a clear viewing sky.

"A few years ago the Leonids were to be exceptional, and he happened to be flying into Denver on the night of the greatest viewing.  I had the minivan full of warm clothes, sleeping bags and lawn chairs.  I surprised him by driving straight from the airport to the top of Loveland Pass and the Continental Divide, above the tree line and away from all light pollution.  It was absolutely awesome and one of the best experiences of my life."

Anonymous: "Last year I got my kids up at about 4 in the morning to see the show. There was the usual whining and groaning as we went out into the yard and walked to the driveway. We all lay back on the hood of our cars and waited. Nothing much was happening and I was getting the 'Big deal, Dad, you woke me up for this?' when it just began. First just one or two flitted across the sky, but then ten at once and scores more. We were awestruck as we were treated to the spectacle of hundreds of meteors. Some of them bounced and re-entered again, some left long trails high in the atmosphere which took a while to dissipate, and after an hour or so they just faded away.

"My kids were exuberant and could not stop talking about the beautiful sight of the meteors and how they seemed to come from one spot right over our heads like snow on a windshield. Now they wake me up when they see the articles about coming showers or conjunctions. I usually whine a lot, but I am proud of their interest, and the shoe is on the other foot."

Anonymous: "One year I was a chaperone at my daughter's marching band camp, held at a college campus during August. On the peak night for the Perseid meteor shower, I convinced a group of chaperones to join me in the field after midnight. We took sleeping bags, and lay on our backs looking up. Suddenly, we heard a strange noise. The automatic sprinklers came on and everyone jumped up and ran off the field. All except me. I was wearing sneakers, and inside my sleeping bag my feet 'stuck' and I couldn't get out. I had to hold the sleeping bag up around me and hop, like in a gunny sack race. Everyone was laughing at me, and I was laughing so hard that I wet my pants."

Meteor-watching tips
Meteor activity can vary widely, depending on where and when you observe. From midnight to dawn is usually the best time, since that's when your region of the world is turning into the meteor stream. NASA's "Fluxtimator" helps you find out what the expectations are for particular regions and times. The Java-based computer program works for November's Leonid meteor shower as well as the Perseids.

How much you see depends a lot on your viewing conditions. Here are some strategies for making the most of any meteor shower:

  • Rest during the evening hours, then get up and watch during the predawn hours. The only exception to this rule might be if you're looking for an "Earthgrazer," a rare, colorful type of meteor streak that passes overhead around sunset. Experts say the period between 8:30 and 10 p.m. is prime time for Earthgrazers. Check Science @ NASA and for more information.
  • Find the darkest safe location possible, far from urban lights and haze. Local astronomy clubs offer the best bets for secure skywatching. Check the Astronomical League to find a club near you.
  • Bring a lounge chair and warm blankets so that you can lie comfortably, looking up at the sky.
  • Relax and look around. Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark. Meteors associated with showers appear to radiate from a particular point in the night sky, but they can flash anywhere in the heavens — so use your peripheral vision.

Even when this year's Perseids fade away, there's always another meteor shower to look forward to: The Leonids, for example, hit their prime this year in the early hours of Nov. 17. For the full calendar, check Gary W. Kronk's "Comets and Meteor Showers."

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