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The Perseids delight stargazers every year, but this year’s meteor shower might be one of the best.
USA TODAY

They’re just specks of dust — crumbs really — of Comet Swift-Tuttle, but when they burn up while plunging into Earth’s atmosphere each August they’re called the Perseids.

The needle on this year’s Perseid meteor shower is expected to hit “awesome” with the peak happening this weekend. Unlike last year when the moon’s spotlight dimmed views of shooting meteors, the moon will be a no-show just in time for a dazzling display on a black velvet-like sky.

Scientists are predicting 70 to 90 meteors per hour at the peak early Sunday and Monday. 

“This year is just real good all night to watch the Perseids,” said Bob Bonadurer, director of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s planetarium in Wisconsin. “This is the first time in a few years the Perseid meteor shower coincides with a new moon” when the night sky is darkest.

While meteors can be seen almost any night for anyone patient enough to look upward for a long time, the Perseids are considered the most popular meteor shower of the year because they happen in the Northern Hemisphere in the summer, when folks don’t mind sitting on a blanket or lawn chair outside for an hour or two.

Unfortunately, the weather for meteor-watching in Delaware isn’t supposed to be ideal this weekend. The National Weather Service forecast heavy rain on Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Wilmington, with showers likely each evening. 

If the sky ever does become visible, though, Bonadurer recommends early morning viewing because as the sun rises, you’ll face the direction the Earth is moving in orbit. He compares it to looking through Earth’s front window as a car barrels down a highway. Meteors are like bugs splatting against the windshield as the planet moves head-on through the meteoroid debris.

Every August, Earth passes through the trail of debris of Comet Swift-Tuttle and the sand- or pebble-sized dust traveling 37 miles per second falls toward this pale blue marble. When they transform into fireballs or streaking dots in the sky, they’re actually pretty close to Earth, said Bonadurer.

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“Generally people think of space happening far, far away. But most meteors are burning up only 50 to 70 miles above you. That’s a one-hour car ride straight up,” Bonadurer said.

The meteors earned their name because they appear to come from the constellation Perseus, the god in Greek mythology who saved Andromeda from a sea monster and beheaded the Gorgon Medusa. 

Bonadurer suggests going somewhere away from lights, like a county or state park, with a blanket or lawn chair, snacks and bug spray. If you’re watching in a group, assign everyone a quadrant of the sky to count the number of meteors since it’s impossible for one person to see all of them.

No need to bring a telescope or binoculars, meteors are best seen by the naked eye. However, this month the four brightest planets can be seen at the same time, a fairly rare occurrence, and a telescope might be useful. Seen in order from west to east in the night sky during August: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

And for those who just can’t get up that early, or stay awake that late, and figure they’ll catch the Perseids next year — forget it. The full moon in August 2019 will occur on the 15th and the bright night sky will make it difficult to see meteors.

 

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