Best show on Earth: Perseids meteor shower arrives this weekend

For the best show on Earth, look up.

Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters
A meteor streaks past stars in the night sky over the village of Kuklici, in Macedonia. The Perseids meteor shower is observed every August when the Earth passes through a stream of space debris left by comet Swift-Tuttle.

What NASA calls “the best meteor shower of the year” is arriving this weekend, lightening up the sky with flashes of bright light and color like no other meteor shower seen on Earth.

The Perseids meteor shower – so named for the constellation Perseus (the Greek hero who beheaded the snake-headed Medusa) from which they appear to originate – is expected to peak during the night and early morning hours of August 11th and 12th. 

The Perseids are renowned for their unusually bright and fast meteors, which appear to stain the night sky with long streams of colorful light. It is also one of the most abundant showers, raining through the perceived dome above some 50 to 100 meteors per hour. And, as a bonus, the shower also comes in the summertime, when the nights are warm and its possible to tug a sleeping bag outside and spend the night watching one of the greatest shows on – well, above – Earth.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the shower is best seen in the hours before dawn, when the meteors are zipping through the atmosphere at their fastest speeds, though in the past meteors have appeared as early as 10:00 p.m., according to NASA.

Here are NASA’s shower watching tips:

“Find an area well away from city or street lights. Come prepared with a sleeping bag, blanket or lawn chair. Lie flat on your back with your feet facing northeast and look up, taking in as much of the sky as possible. After about 30 minutes in the dark, your eyes will adapt and you will begin to see meteors.”

Meteors are pieces of rock and metal torn from asteroids, as bits of rock fizzled off from comets traveling through the solar system. When Earth enters a belt of that debris, as it will this weekend, those pieces enter our atmosphere and burn up, creating bright tails of fire that are visible to us here on Earth.

The meteors that form the Perseids meteor shower are rubble that comet Swift-Tuttle (named for its two 19th century discoverers) leaves behind as it makes its 133-year orbit around the sun. Scientists date the earliest records of the shower to about 2,000 years ago, in 36 AD, when Chinese scribes looked up one morning to see some 100 flaming objects raining through the half-globe above them.

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