Perseid Meteor Shower to Light Up Night Sky

Over the next few days, the Earth will sweep through the debris trail of comet Swift-Tuttle, causing an impressive display of "shooting stars." Alex Chadwick talks with Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about the latest round of the regular Perseid meteor shower, beginning August 12.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

For all you star-gazers, tonight is a good time to get out the lawn chair, lean back and find a comfy view of the sky. It's the beginning of the annual summer celestial spectacular. This is the Perseid meteor shower, and if the weather cooperates, the star show could last till dawn. Here to explain more is Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Welcome, Ira. You must be a regular viewer of this Perseid meteor shower. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

IRA FLATOW reporting:

Yeah. Yes, you are. Usually you'll find me on nights like tonight in the driveway or on the 18th hole of my local public golf course. I--try the par five. Those are usually pretty good 'cause you can get a pretty good view of the sky, you know...

CHADWICK: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...away from the branches or the leaves or the buildings, and that's one of the two key things that you have to do. You have to be able to get a good view of the sky, and you have to get out to where it's pretty dark. You don't want the light pollution from Los Angeles or any--New York or any cities like that to get in the way. So you--those are two important things. And you have to hope that the weather is good for you. Have you ever indulged, Alex?

CHADWICK: Gone out to see--I have not seen this particular meteor shower, but every time I get to a place where the sky's really dark, I love to watch the night sky.

FLATOW: Yeah. And this is a really good one--the Perseid meteor shower. There are a couple during the year, and the Perseids are pretty good, and this year we have to wonder what it's going to look like. You know, people make predictions all the time about how many shooting stars you might see per minute, and usually in the regular Perseid meteor shower you get to see about 60 of them--about--that's--averages out to one per minute. But back in 1992, when the comet Swift-Tuttle comes by--and it comes by about once every 130 years--the meteor shower was pretty intense because that's the comet that we actually go through the tail of--we go through the dust of the comet. And these--the dust then sort of showers down on the Earth and creates a meteor shower. So if you were around back then and you think you're going to see, well, 120 per hour, you're just going to have to settle for only 60 per hour, so you'll have to do with that.

CHADWICK: And this is the night for shooting stars, these regular streaks of light in the sky.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, and in fact, you'll see them and you'll sometimes say, `Did I see something?' you know, a little shooting star goes by and when they hear the statistic, a lot of people will say, `Well, if it's 60 per hour, I should see one a minute,' but that's not really how they happen. A lot of times, you're lying on your back, there on your chair, and you'll see boom, boom, boom, boom--a whole bunch of them goes by, you know, two, three, four, and you say, `Whoa, it's better than the Fourth of July,' and you wait, and you have to wait another few minutes, and that's where you get your average of 60. They may not be one per minute, so just be patient.

CHADWICK: OK. Now we don't have to talk about East Coast time or Central or West or anything. This will go on all over the country sort of all night long, but what is the best viewing time?

FLATOW: Well, you want to wait till after 11 PM, when the moon is going to go down. The moon is going to be late-setting, and then the actual meteor shower, viewing time, will begin, you know, around after midnight when the sky gets really dark when the moon being down, and it'll last for the next--What?--five hours until the sun rises, and then the interesting part about this is that the peak of the shower is going to occur during the daytime. Of course we can't see it during the daytime. So you'll have a good fives hours tonight to watch it; it should be very interesting.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday," regular Thursday guest here at DAY TO DAY. Thanks again, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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