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Perseid Meteor Shower Tonight: Make the Most of a Moonstruck Show

Image: Mount Rainier meteor

A 2013 Perseid photo by Jeff Berkes shows the flash of a meteor above Mount Rainier in Washington state. "You can see clouds in the distance behind the volcano being lit up by nearby light pollution," Berkes says. Jeff Berkes

Tuesday night's peak of the Perseid meteor shower comes just after the brightest full moon of 2014, but it's still well worth watching for, says one of NASA's top experts on shooting stars. You just have to know where and when to watch.

The nearly full supermoon will be glaring in the night sky during the annual spectacle's peak, from after midnight until dawn — but Bill Cooke, head of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, says that's still prime time.

"I think it is better for folks to watch for Perseids in the pre-dawn hours, rather than try to catch an Earthgrazer early in the evening," he told NBC News in an email. "Earthgrazers are very rare, even during the Perseid shower, and you will see vastly more meteors around 3 a.m. local time, despite the nearly full moon."

Perseid is Here: So What Causes a Meteor Shower? 0:42

The early reviews have given Cooke reason to hope.

"The Perseid shower is rich in bright meteors, and observers have been reporting decent rates the past couple of nights," he said. Under peak conditions, the Perseids typically produce as many as 100 meteor flashes an hour. This year, with the supermoon in the sky, peak rates of 45 to 70 meteors per hour already have been reported, according to the International Meteor Organization.

The Perseids pop up between mid-July and late August, when Earth passes through the stream of cosmic grit left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. When those bits of grit flash through the upper atmosphere, they leave behind the ionized trails we see as shooting stars. The meteors seem to emanate from a point in the constellation Perseus — which explains the shower's name. Northern Hemisphere observers typically have the best seats in the house.

The standard rules for meteor-watching are simple. Find a comfortable spot far away from city lights, with a clear, open view of the sky. But this year's bright moon adds some extra twists:

  • Try to head for a higher-elevation vantage point, to cut down on the lower-elevation haze that scatters moonlight and spoils the view. "Usually the most dramatic improvement occurs up to about 1,500 meters [5,000 feet] high," the International Meteor Organization says.
  • Try setting yourself up in a location where the moonlight is blocked by a house, a mountain or trees. "Some observers use an umbrella, to good effect," the IMO says.
  • Face away from the moon. Astrophotographer Jeff Berkes says the full moon will be in the western sky in the dark hours before sunrise. "If you face east, you won't have the glare from the moon, you'll have darker skies, and you can use the moon to illuminate your foreground subjects."

Berkes is particularly proud of a moonlit Perseid picture he took last year at Crater Lake National Park in Oregon.

"I'm almost pointing directly at the moon," he wrote in an email. "It's just out of the frame on the right side of the picture. So in dark locations toward sunrise, the moon will be closer to the horizon, giving some relief as the shower peaks. I like how the moon lit up the tree and created beams of light from wildfire haze inside the crater. If it wasn't for the moon, this picture would have been boring!"

Image: Crater Lake meteor
A Perseid meteor flashes over Oregon's Crater Lake on the right side of this image by Jeff Berkes, while bristlecone trees dominate the left side of the frame. Jeff Berkes

For still more from Berkes, check out his website and Facebook page. And for still more meteor-watching tips, consult last year's perfect Perseid viewing guide. One of the most important tips is to share the experience. There are at least three ways to do that:

  • Cooke and other NASA experts will be taking questions during a live Web chat starting at 11 p.m. ET Tuesday. Just make your way to NASA's Perseid webpage. You can also watch a Ustream video view of the skies over Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama starting at 9:30 p.m. ET.
  • The Slooh virtual observatory is airing online coverage of the Perseids starting at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday, featuring live views from the Institute of Astrophysics in the Canary Islands. There'll also be recorded video segments about meteors, and viewers can ask questions during the show by using the hashtag #PerseidsSloohsation.
  • Capturing the Perseids in a picture is a tricky proposition, but if you're successful, please share it with us on Twitter or Instagram by using the hashtag #NBCmeteor. You can count on seeing some cool shots in SpaceWeather.com's meteor gallery, or NASA's Flickr gallery.

While you're watching for meteors, keep your eye out for other night-sky attractions. NASA's "Spot the Station" online guide tells you when you can see the International Space Station flying over your area. You can see Mars and Saturn in the southwest at dusk, and Venus and Jupiter in the east at dawn. EarthSky.org shows you just where to look.