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August 7, 2009

A Cosmic Display

Every August I spend at least one night laying out under the stars and watching one of the most spectacular shows. This is the Perseid meteor shower. If you've never seen a meteor shower, it is a sight to remember. A meteor shower happens when the Earth passes through debris left behind by a comet. This particular meteor shower is made up of debris no larger than about a pebble left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle.

The meteor shower will peak around August 11th, and you should get a good show as long as you are within a few days of that.  I would recommend trying to get away from any large city, although you should still be able to see the brightest meteors in light polluted areas.  This year sounds like it should be a particularly good show, with estimates for the peak as high as 200 meteors per hour.  To watch this spectacle just look up into the sky after it gets dark.  You will probably see the most meteors looking roughly North-East in the early hours of the morning (midnight to 4am).  The only problem this year will be the moon.  The moon will be high in the sky for the best nights.  This is unfortunate, but shouldn't stop you from having a great night.

The streaks of light you will see are dust and ice left behind by the comet burning up in our atmosphere.  It is a common misconception that the reason they burn up is because of the friction with our atmosphere.  What is actually happening is they are compressing the air in front of them and that compression creates heat.  It is unlikely that any of the any of the meteors you see during the Perseid will ever hit the ground.

I plan on heading up into the mountains near where I live a few nights after the peak with a sleeping bag and some friends.  I hope you all have clear skies and enjoy one of the most amazing sights the sky has to offer.

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