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Fire in the sky

  • Perseid meteor shower to put on a show
  • Best times to see it, August 12-13

The Perseids meteor shower is due to put on a sky show for Northern Hemisphere stargazers over the next couple of nights.

The best time to see the Perseids will be from the hours of 10pm to dawn, on the nights of August 12 and 13.

Adding to the spectacle will be the sight of the planets Venus, Mars and Saturn, along with a crescent Moon, in the western sky. These four will have dipped below the horizon by the time the meteor shower begins.

A meteor is the flash of light seen in the sky when a meteoroid—which in size can be anything from smaller than a grain of sand, all the way up to metres across—enters the Earth’s atmosphere.

The tremendous speed of entry means that the thin air gets compressed around the meteoroid, and briefly glows. The meteoroid itself usually disintegrates during the process.

If a meteoroid is large enough and solid enough, it might—or pieces of it might—survive and fall to the ground. When this happens, those pieces are known as meteorites.

Most meteoroids, particularly those involved in showers like the Perseids, are tiny in size.

Sky diagram showing the Perseid meteor shower

To see the Perseids, look to the western sky between 10pm and dawn, August 12 and 13, 2010.

Meter showers occur when the Earth’s orbit intersects the dusty trail left behind by a comet.

To avoid disappointment, it’s important to know, however, that meteor showers do not look like continuous fireworks displays. Most showers, including the Perseids, have a maximum of tens of meteors per hour—so working that out, you might see one every couple of minutes.

The Perseids will appear to “radiate” from one region of the sky, namely, the constellation Perseus. Perseus is a far northern constellation, which means that the best views of the shower are to be had by those who live in the Northern Hemisphere.

Southern Hemisphere stargazers are not favoured by the Perseids. Perhaps a handful of particular strong meteors might be seen zipping over the northern horizon, but generally they will not be visible.

Story by Jonathan Nally, editor Video courtesy NASA. Images by Pete Lawrence of Selsey, UK, and NASA.

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