Perseid meteor shower: Watch the shooting stars

Max Smith, wtop.com

WASHINGTON – The Perseid meteor shower will give area residents a good reason to stay up late and look up in the sky this weekend.

Astronomer Elizabeth Warner with the University of Maryland Observatory says the best time and place to see the annual meteor shower is after midnight Sunday, in the darkest spot available.

“Even finding a spot where [people] won’t get the direct glare of streetlights or other lights will help,” she writes in an email. “Darker skies [let] you see the fainter ones, which are more numerous than bright ones.”

The streaks of light can be seen with the naked eye. Warner suggests bringing out a blanket or lawn chair so people can just lie down and look up.

Sean O’Brien, a staff astronomer for the Albert Einstein Planetarium in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, says people should try to take in as much of the sky as they can.

“You don’t need any special equipment,” he says. “All you need is you and a dark patch of sky, as dark as you can get it where you’re safe, and just keep looking up.”

O’Brien says the human eye has to adapt to the darkness first before seeing the meteor shower.

“Once your eyes have dark-adapted for several minutes, you’re going to see more than you would 30 seconds after you walk out the back door,” O’Brien says.

The small pieces left by the comet Swift-Tuttle are the size of a grain of sand, with the brighter flashes coming from debris the size of a fingernail, according to O’Brien.

“What you’re seeing is not the little bit of space debris burning up,” he says. “You’re actually seeing the air around it as it’s burning up.”

The shower is expected to peak between midnight and dawn Sunday. NASA says Perseid rates may get as high as 100 meteors per hour, though not all of them may be visible.

“If you see one every few minutes, that’s great,” O’Brien says.

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