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meteor shower

Posted by Cordon Sanitare on 2004-03-05 00:19:19

Perseid meteors are fast, bright and colorful. The annual Perseid shower is one of the year's best. Really spectacular. But that's not why I love watching them. The real reason is ... the Perseids are comfortable.

Remember the Leonid meteor storm last November? Great meteors. Lousy weather. Outdoors at 3 a.m. in mid-November is just too cold for comfort.

Perseid dust particles are tiny, most no bigger than grains of sand. Yet they travel very fast--about 132,000 mph (59 km/s). Even a tiny dust speck can become a brilliant meteor when it hits the atmosphere at that speed. There's no danger to sky watchers, though. The fragile grains disintegrate long before they reach the ground.

Because of the way the comet's orbit is tilted, dust from Swift-Tuttle falls on Earth's northern hemisphere. Viewed from Earth's surface, the meteors appear to flow from the constellation Perseus (hence the name Perseids). Perseus is easy to spot from Europe and North America, but it barely peeps above the horizon of, e.g., Australia and New Zealand. Southern hemisphere sky watchers will see very few Perseids.

The following is true no matter where you live: The best time to look for meteors is when Perseus is highest in the sky--between 2 a.m. and dawn. On August 12th, set your alarm for 2 o'clock in the morning. Go outside; lie down on a sleeping bag or a reclining lawn chair with your toes pointed northeast; and gaze upward. Soon you'll see shooting stars racing along the Milky Way.

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The Perseids are different. They come in August when the cool night air is refreshing, not bone chilling. I can shuffle outside at 3 a.m. in my pajamas and still enjoy the show.

This year the shower peaks on August 12th and 13th. Experts say it should be remarkably good. The Perseids have been strong in recent years--a promising sign for 2002. And the moon sets early in mid-August; lunar interference will not be a problem. Sky watchers can expect to see dozens to hundreds of meteors per hour.

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Perseid meteors come from comet Swift-Tuttle. Every 130 years, the comet swoops in from deep space (beyond Pluto) and plunges through the plane of the solar system not far from Earth's orbit. Astronomers once worried that Swift-Tuttle might hit our planet, but recent data and calculations show otherwise. There's no danger of a collision for at least a millenium and probably much longer.

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Even so, little pieces of Swift-Tuttle do hit Earth. The comet's orbit is littered with bits of dusty debris. They bubble away from the comet's icy nucleus (propelled by evaporating ice) when Swift-Tuttle nears the Sun. These grains form a cloud that we plow through once a year.

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We're entering the outskirts of that cloud now (late July). Every hour, one or two meteors are streaking across the sky. It's the slow beginning of the Perseids.