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Night owls make the most of the meteors

The Perseid meteor shower is reaching its peak, and experts say the viewing conditions are ideal. How many shooting stars will you see? That depends a lot on where and when you go.

I was falling behind in the meteor count, but it really wasn't a fair contest. My newfound friends had been watching the dazzling skies for quite a while before I arrived, and they seemed to know just where to look.

"Wow! There was a good one," Tim Horne cried out. "Oops, sorry you missed it."

Eventually, I caught up with Tim and his wife, Kim, but the competition could be even keener Sunday night and early Monday morning, when the annual Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak. How many will skywatchers see? The meteors themselves really aren't the main determining factor — rather, the trick is where you go to see them, and exactly when.

The Perseids are among the most reliable of the year's cosmic fireworks displays. In mid-August, Earth passes through a stream of grit left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle in its eccentric 130-year orbit. Flecks of debris burn up as they pass through the atmosphere, at a height of about 60 miles, producing streaks of light — and sometimes leaving behind glowing trails that fade into the night.

Astronomers have calculated that Earth will pass through the thickest part of the stream this year around 2 a.m. ET Monday. Theoretically, you could see a meteor or two every minute if you're watching under optimal viewing conditions at that time.

The viewing conditions are what make the difference between a dazzling sky spectacle and a disappointing letdown. This year, the Perseids reach their peak when the moon is completely out of the night sky — which means the meteoric fireworks are facing no competition from the moon's glare. But that advantage doesn't do you any good unless you find a clear stretch of sky, far away from the glare of city lights.

That's why I, like the Hornes, traveled more than 80 miles from home in the cloudy Seattle area to Cle Elum in central Washington state. I just happened to spot the Hornes' truck as I was driving along a country road, and found some unexpectedly good company for Sunday morning's wee hours.

Meteor-watchers have already been filing early reviews on the Meteorobs discussion forum. Some say the Perseids are more than living up to their promise: "This morning presented one of the most impressive skies I have seen," Robert Lunsford, operations manager for the American Meteor Society, reported from California. "I jumped out of the truck and said WOW."

Other reviews are less glowing: In Oregon, Wesley Stone said Saturday's display was "nothing to write home about, but nothing to sneeze at, either."

That's all the more reason to be prepared if you take on your own meteor quest Sunday night or early Monday. Here are my top 10 tips:

  • Between sunset and midnight is the best time to look for "Earthgrazers" — seldom-seen but spectacularly long-lived meteors that zoom through the atmosphere near the horizon. It's also prime time for spotting the international space station as it passes overhead like an ultra-high-flying jet. NASA lists sighting opportunities for locations around the globe.
  • All meteor showers are best seen between midnight and dawn, because that's when Earth is turning directly into the oncoming stream of debris. The projected meteor count rises as the night wears on, all the way up to morning twilight. To get an idea how the night will develop, check out NASA's Java-based Fluxtimator.
  • Where should you go? You'll want to get out in the country if possible, and make sure the skies are clear. The best online tool for finding such places is the Clear Sky Clock, which graphically shows predicted conditions in astronomical hot spots around the globe.  That's how I came up with Cle Elum.
  • Check around for special viewing events sponsored by the astronomy club in your area. The Clear Sky Clock may link directly to the right club, or you can consult the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's club listing.
  • If you're heading out into the country, bring something to lie down on, and something to wrap up in if it gets cold. Meteors are best observed when you're on your back, taking in as much of the sky as possible. Perseid meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Perseus (hence the name), but they can appear anywhere in the sky.
  • To get around in the dark, bring a flashlight. It's better if you put a red filter over the flashlight lens — that way, you preserve your night vision. Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to get used to the dark.
  • My indispensable meteor-watching aids also include a thermos of hot coffee — to keep me warm while I watch, and alert for the drive back home.
  • Don't obsess too much over how many meteors you see. The "meteor-per-minute" estimate is just an average for peak conditions. Sometimes one streak follows another after only 15 seconds. But sometimes several minutes pass between sightings.
  • While you're watching, don't ignore the other sights of the night. Take the opportunity to learn some of the basic constellations. The planet Jupiter is visible during the early part of the night. Later, if you look below the Pleiades star cluster in eastern skies, you should be able to spot Mars as a bright butterscotch star. The Heavens Above Web site is a good resource for such sky lore.
  • Although the Perseids reach their peak late Sunday and early Monday, you can still catch replays of the show on succeeding nights. Astronomers say another meteor shower, known as the Aurigids, should build to a rarely seen crescendo on Sept. 1 this year. Then there are the Orionids in October, and the Leonids in November, and the Geminids in December, and so on. ... Meteor Showers Online provides the whole schedule.

In the end, the biggest thrill doesn't come from tallying up how many shooting stars you spot. Seeing the meteor show is all about taking the opportunity to experience the grandeur of nature — whether you're on a country road hours away from home, or in your own back yard.

"I don't think people remember to look at the stars," Kim Horne told me as we gazed skyward. "The stars kind of put you in your place: We're just part of a much larger world."