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Catch a four-star meteor show

The Perseid meteor shower hits its peak in the predawn hours of Thursday morning. Check out the last-minute forecast and viewing guide.
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.Ali Jarekji / Reuters file

The Perseid meteor shower is meeting higher-than-normal expectations, with the annual show hitting its peak between midnight and dawn Thursday.

In the run-up to the prime viewing hours, veteran skywatchers reported appreciable counts of meteors, said Bob Lunsford, operations manager for the American Meteor Society.

Lunsford saw 179 meteors during four hours of observing late Tuesday and early Wednesday. "I had some one-minute periods where there were five or so meteors going off — bang, bang, bang."

During their nightly sessions, Lunsford and other observers have seen their share of fireballs — showy meteors that can leave behind glowing trails. "The colors on some of them were really vivid," he said, with yellows, blues and a lovely shade of coppery orange.

The peak time comes early Thursday, when Earth's leading edge drives right through the stream of particles left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. One of the night's earliest reviews came from western Turkey, where Arlene Brill described a "great meteor display."

"Nice long trails and some interesting colors (pink, gold, orange)," she said in a posting to the Meteorobs online forum. "I'm amazed at the number of meteors coming from exactly the same radiant, almost like being shot out of a cannon in the same direction. I don't recall that in previous years."

Flashier than last year
The Perseids, which peak every year in mid-August, are so named because they appear to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus. This year's Perseids are much flashier than last year's for a couple of reasons, with the moon's position in the night sky on the top of the list.

The moon is heading toward its new phase, meaning that moonlight won't overwhelm the meteor flashes. In contrast, last year's Perseid show was washed out by the glare of a full moon.

Some astronomers predicted that observers in eastern Europe, northeastern Africa and western Asia might have been in for a particularly heavy meteor storm. They calculated that Earth was taking dead aim at the debris trail that Swift-Tuttle left behind during its 1862 swing through the inner solar system.

The storm was projected to occur at 2100 GMT Wednesday. That translates to 5 p.m. ET, which would rule out observations from the Western Hemisphere. Lunsford said he was "kind of jealous" of observers in the Eastern Hemisphere, but he noted that the storm would be easy to miss. "It'll last less than an hour and probably consist of faint meteors, so those observing from urban areas may not even notice it," he said.

Finnish astronomer Esko Lyytinen was among those who predicted the potential for a meteor storm — but in an e-mail update, he told that "the outburst was rather weak," based on sensitive video observations.

"There were a number of very short meteors, almost pointlike meteors around the predicted outburst time, maybe roughly a dozen in all ... but practically not in other times," Lyytinen said. "I can see in more detail from the VHS tape later. I don't know if this brightness [of] meteors could have been visible visually under good conditions. ... After the peak time, I think that an about-normal amount was seen when looking out for a while."

Last-minute tips
Even a normal Perseid display should be good enough for most observers. You can use NASA's "Fluxtimator" to 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: Lunsford, one of the world's most seasoned meteor-watchers, is hoping to spot more than 100 meteors an hour early Thursday from his vantage point on California's Mount Laguna, near San Diego. The 6,000-foot-elevation site — far from city lights, with clear skies and low humidity — makes for a perfect vantage point.

Here are some strategies for making the most of the meteors:

  • Rest during the evening hours, then get up and watch during Thursday's 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 comfortable lounge chair and warm blankets. Ideally, you should set up your chair so that you look halfway up in the sky anywhere in the north and east quadrant.
  • Relax and look around. Give your eyes at least 15 minutes to adjust to the dark. The Perseids appear to radiate from a point in the northeast, but they can appear anywhere in the sky — so use your peripheral vision.
  • In the early morning, watch for the rise of the crescent moon, with the planet Venus shining brightly nearby. For a map of the morning sky, check Sky & Telescope magazine. You can use the Heavens Above Web site to get details about moonrise, sunrise and other astronomical goings-on for your area.
  • If you want to contribute to Perseid lore, you can keep your own meteor count and report your findings afterward. To learn more about systematic meteor observing, consult the North American Meteor Network Guide, or the International Meteor Organization's Visual Observers Page, or Sky & Telescope.

Although the Perseid show hits its prime Thursday morning, you should still be able to see a respectable number of shooting stars through the coming weekend. And 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."