Archive for Sunday, August 12, 2007

Astronomers advise stargazers to check out meteor shower

August 12, 2007

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— Looking for some dirt-cheap entertainment tonight? Just look up in the sky.

The annual Perseids meteor shower that will peak this evening is caused by nothing more than, well, flying dirt - tiny meteors that will hit Earth's atmosphere at a high rate of speed and then leave streaks on the skyscape as they burn up.

Some folks call them meteor showers. Others call them shooting stars. But astronomy experts are in agreement that this weekend's show should be extra special because there will be little or no moonlight to wash out the display.

The Perseids always peak in mid-August but are visible for several days. This year, the optimal viewing hours will be late tonight and in the wee hours Monday, when there's a new moon or no moon.

For those who don't want to stay up late tonight, astronomers say, the Perseids should also be visible Monday night, although the shooting stars won't be as abundant.

Tonight "if you can get to a site that is reasonably dark, like a large park or some remote location away from city lights, it should be pretty nice. You should be able to see a meteor on average every minute or so," said Marni Berendsen, education project coordinator at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, based in San Francisco.

The mini meteors, most no larger than a human fingernail, are fragments of dirt left behind by an old comet, Swift-Tuttle, as it came close to the sun during numerous orbits. Every year Earth returns to the same spot in space and moves through this trail of dust, triggering the display.

It wasn't all that long ago that mankind romanticized the meteor showers, thinking they were actual stars shooting across the sky.

But Ben Burress, astronomer at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, Calif., doesn't mince words when he describes the space dirt.

"If you're driving down the freeway and you run through a bunch of bugs and they hit your windshield, you see streaks," Burress explained. "In the Earth's case, we see streaks in the atmosphere."

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