Perseid meteor shower peaks Monday, Tuesday nights

There are few things more special than watching a shooting star streak across the sky on a warm summer evening.

You'll have your chance Monday and Tuesday nights, when a dozen meteors per hour and possibly up to 50 or more at its peak are slated to dazzle the heavens after dark.

Meteor showers occur when Earth enters a spattering of space-borne debris. The debris usually stems from a larger object - namely a comet or asteroid - that passed by long ago. The Perseids occur as Earth passes through the debris trail of the comet Swift-Tuttle.

The reason we see the meteor shower at the same time each year is because Earth moves through the same area of debris at this point in its annual orbit around the sun.

When a piece of debris strikes the outer atmosphere about 60 miles high, friction causes it to burn up. Most of the shooting stars you see actually come from pebbles the size of a grain of rice or smaller.

"But if you see a fireball, it's probably bigger," says Bill Cooke, who leads NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "Those ones are about a centimeter across."

- Where to look

You're unlikely to catch more than a few sporadic shooting stars during twilight, before about 10 p.m. After that, there's no specific place to look - just up! Some people seek out the show's radiant, which marks the point from which all the shooting stars appear to originate. That would be the constellation Perseus, hanging low in the northern/northeastern sky.

There's no special benefit to looking there, however. In fact, many skywatchers look away from the radiant to see shooting stars that have the longest, most spectacular-looking tails.

The Perseids are the most popular meteor shower of the year, in large part because they occur during the summer.

"They're convenient," Cooke says. "The Geminids produce more meteors, but they're in mid-December. With the Perseids, the nights are comfortable, and you can watch them without freezing your carcass off." 

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Source, image(s), credits & more: Brainerd Dispatch | Matthew Cappucci / The Washington Post