(NEW YORK) — Go outside in the wee hours of Sunday morning and if the night sky is clear, you might see exquisite showers. The Perseid meteor shower of 2012 is expected to peak Sunday between midnight and dawn, and if you’re in a good, dark place, you might see more than 60 meteors — shooting stars — per hour.
Every year at this time, the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet called Swift-Tuttle, and we see meteors streaking across the night sky as pieces of debris from the comet — most no larger than grains of sand — enter the earth’s atmosphere and burn up.
Although the comet is far away now, in an elliptical orbit that brings it close to the sun once every 133 years, rock and ice from it have spread out along its path. The comet itself will probably be pretty good to see if you can hang on until July 2126, but in the meantime, like clockwork, it gives us an annual meteor shower in mid-August.
This is a good year to look. There is a crescent moon that will rise in the east Sunday around 2 a.m., but it should not be bright enough to interfere with seeing in other parts of the sky. The weather is another matter; the forecast, especially for the eastern United States, is not promising.
Be alert; most meteors streak by in a second or less, sometimes in clusters. To see them well, find a nice, dark place with no street lights and as few trees as possible, and look up. You may be happiest in a lawn chair or a sleeping bag. Coffee and bug spray might be helpful, too. The streaks could appear anywhere in the sky, although they’ll generally appear to come from the constellation Perseus, in the northeastern sky, after midnight.
In general, there are more shooting stars in the morning hours because that’s the side of the Earth that faces forward as we orbit the sun, so it’s less shielded. While the shower actually peaks early Sunday, Perseid meteors are often spotted several nights before and after.
The Perseid usually lets you see one or two shooting stars a minute, but only if you have dark, clear skies, and happen to be looking in the right direction.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Stephanie Elam, CNN
Julia Horowitz, CNN