The Perseids meteor shower, an August tradition

The Perseids meteor shower is an astronomical tradition that returns every year, running from late July to mid-August. The night time fireworks occur for several weeks as the Earth moves through the tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet, which sprinkles particles across the atmosphere. Those particles, in turn, burn up in a bright, colorful, display that is amongst the best light shows that nature has to offer.

The 2010 edition of the Perseids has already begun, and will actually peak this week. The absolute best days to watch the meteor shower are tonight, tomorrow night, and Friday. (August 11-13) During these peak days, you can expect, on average, about 30-40 meteors per hour. But after mid-night things really pick up with as many as 90-100 shooting stars per hour. That’s 1.5 meteors per minute for those keeping score at home.

This year, stargazers have the sky working in their favor as well. On August 9, the moon entered the “new” phase, meaning that it will be absent from the sky at the peak days of the shower, ensuring that there won’t be any natural light pollution to obstruct the views. Having a dark sky is crucial to really getting the full effect of the Perseids, and that includes the lights of the city as well. If you want to enjoy the display to its fullest, it is definitely best that you head somewhere without too much ambient light, such as a large park. Better yet, leave the city behind altogether and head out into the countryside.

The next few days give us all the chance to observe one of the best astronomical displays of the year, and although it is most prominent in the Northern Hemisphere, it can be seen nearly every where on Earth. For an enjoyable and relaxing evening, grab a bottle of wine and a blanket, head out onto the lawn, and stay up late for the show. You won’t be disappointed.

[Photo credit: Mila Zinkova via WikiMedia]