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Mother Earth's atmosphere will be pelted with small pebbles and grains of sand as it passes through debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. The Perseid meteor shower promises to be spectacular this year.

Fireballs, No Moonlight: Perseid Meteors Dazzle in Spectacular Style [Video]

ICTMN Staff
8/11/15

One of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year is here, and this one promises to be a stunner. In fact, conditions are so perfect that it might just be mind-blowing.

For starters, there’s the absence of moonlight.

“This year’s Perseid meteor shower peaks on August 12th and 13th,” says Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “The moon will be nearly new, setting the stage for a great display.”

The new moon falls on the 14th, just one day after the shower’s peak. This means it will be virtually invisible, save for a crescent so slim that it might as well not be there, astronomers said.

“With the moon absent from the sky, observers under clear, dark skies can expect to see up to 100 ‘shooting stars’ per hour, the maximum rate possible,” says Astronomy.com. “Conditions haven’t been this good since 2010.”

RELATED: Video: Perseid Meteors Battle Year’s Biggest Supermoon in Sky Smackdown

Then there are the fireballs.

“Although most shower meteors meet their demise high in Earth’s atmosphere, at altitudes between 50 and 70 miles, a few bigger particles survive to within 12 miles of the surface,” Astronomy.com says. “These typically produce ‘fireballs’ that glow as bright as or brighter than Venus.”

Moreover, the constellation that the meteors appear to emanate from, Perseus (hence the name), will be almost exactly overhead at the darkest point of the night, just as the shower peaks.

“The late-night hours are when the shower's radiant point (in northern Perseus) rises high in the sky,” says Sky and Telescope. “Or to say the same thing another way, that's when the meteors hit your side of the world most nearly head-on.”

And there's more: This year Jupiter's gravitational field is exerting a subtle influence on the debris stream, sending more of it our way, according to Space.com.

Generated by debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, the material comprising the Perseids lies in a swathe wide enough that it takes Mother Earth weeks to tumble through, NASA says. That started as early as July, but the shooting stars have been but scattered until this week, when they come out in full force.

It’s hard to believe that such fierce light and beauty could emanate from chunks of rock ranging in size from sand grains to pebbles, but that is exactly what they are when they hit, according to Space.com. Plunging into Mother Earth’s atmosphere at 130,000 miles per hour (that’s 37 miles per second), they come to a spectacular end as they ionize, burn and are transformed into light—what we see as a shooting star.

“They cannot survive the shock of entry, so they streak across the sky in a brief, blazing finale,” explains Space.com. “Such a small particle can be seen as a ‘shooting star’ for hundreds of miles. In most instances, the particles first become visible at about 70 miles above the ground and die out at a height of about 40 miles.”

As eye-catching as the shower may be, seeing hundreds of meteors is not a given. Optimizing viewing conditions is key.

“Although nature delivers the Perseids on a silver platter this year, that doesn’t mean you can just walk out the door and see a great show,” Astronomy.com says. “First, to maximize the number of meteors visible, observe from a rural location without any nearby artificial lights. Battling city sky glow or a neighbor’s security light can wash out fainter meteors just as effectively as a bright Moon would. And the middle of a large field or a hilltop provides a panoramic view that will let you spy more meteors.”

If you are lucky enough to escape city lights, the show could be truly amazing, especially if you start looking just after midnight and stare at the sky till the darkest hours before dawn.

“For the best views of this shower, look about two-thirds of the way up from the horizon toward the northeast,” Astronomy.com says. “But don't get tunnel vision staring at one location. Let your eyes wander so your peripheral vision can pick up meteors you otherwise might not see.”

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