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Gear up to see some great balls of fire flashing through the sky this month.
According to NASA research, the upcoming Perseid meteor shower produces more fireballs — bright meteors that streak across the sky — than any other annual shower, earning it the title of "fireball champion".
During the peak of the Perseids, stargazers under dark skies could see more than 100 meteors per hour, but some bright fireballs can also be spotted in urban, light polluted areas.
"We have found that one meteor shower produces more fireballs than any other," Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office said in a statement. "It's the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on August 12th and 13th."
Cooke and his team of scientists have used meteor cameras around the southern United States to track fireballs since 2008.
The Perseids produced 568 tracked fireballs while the Geminid meteor shower came in a close second, producing 426 from 2008 to 2013. The Geminid fireballs, however, are not quite as bright as the Perseid-produced streakers. Scientists use a magnitude scale to rate the brightness of objects in the night sky. Lower numbers mean brighter objects, with negative numbers denoting exceptionally bright events.
"The average peak magnitude for a Perseid observed by our cameras is -2.7; for the Geminids, it is -2," Cooke said. "So on average, Geminid fireballs are about a magnitude fainter than those in the Perseids."
The high rate of fireballs could have something to do with the meteor shower's progenitor: Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every year, the Earth passes through a trail of dust left behind in the comet's wake. The dust burns up in Earth's atmosphere, creating the brilliant shower.
It's possible that the size of Swift-Tuttle could cause the high number of fireballs produced during the meteor shower.
"Comet Swift-Tuttle has a huge nucleus — about 26 kilometers [16 miles] in diameter," Cooke said in a statement. "Most other comets are much smaller, with nuclei only a few kilometers across. As a result, Comet Swift-Tuttle produces a large number of meteoroids, many of which are large enough to produce fireballs."
Interested observers should look to the skies from 10:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. local time on the nights of Aug. 12 and Aug. 13, Cooke recommends. The rate of meteor activity will begin low and increase throughout the night and wee hours of the morning.
"Get away from city lights," Cooke said. "While fireballs can be seen from urban areas, the much greater number of faint Perseids is visible only from the countryside."
Editor's Note: If you snap an amazing picture of the 2013 Perseid meteor shower or any other night sky view that you'd like to share for a possible story or image gallery, send photos, comments and your name and location to managing editor Tariq Malik at firstname.lastname@example.org.