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Sky watch: Perseids shower our skies in August

It was during the cool pre-dawn hours 1,974 years ago that Chinese sky watchers wrote in their journals: "More than one hundred meteors flew thither in the morning." Now, I admit the word "thither" is not one I use frequently, but this ancient documentation seems to mark the first recorded observation of what we call the Perseid meteor shower.

Even today, August is the time of year when people become excited about watching meteors, also called falling or shooting stars.

Our region of space is littered with dusty particles called "meteoroids." As one falls into our atmosphere, it disintegrates in a quick burst of light. An observer can typically see three or four random (or "sporadic") meteors every hour falling from various directions on a clear dark night.

There are, however, times when our odds of seeing meteors improve. And in a few weeks will be one of those times because our planet will carry us on our annual journey through the swarm of debris left behind by the slowly disintegrating Comet Swift-Tuttle.

This passage takes several days, but the best time to view meteors will be during the pre-dawn hours of Friday, Aug. 13.

We might be inclined to go out during the evening hours of Aug. 12 or 13, since that's most convenient. But the show then might be disappointing.

Since the Earth is slamming into a cloud of dusty particles, one can liken the phenomenon to encountering a swarm of bugs on the highway. Of all the windows on the car, which gets pelted the most? Of course, it's the front.

Same is true as the Earth whirls through space. Our best view of the shower comes when peering out the Earth's "front window" - that's only before dawn.

To view the Perseids this year, head out to a remote, dark location between midnight and dawn on Friday, Aug. 13, lie back and scan the skies. You might see as many as one meteor per minute falling from the heavens; trace them backward and most will seem to originate from the constellation Perseus, high in the northeast.

Dress warmly since, even during summer, the pre-dawn hours can become chilly. And remember, you need only your eyes to enjoy meteors flying "thither" in the morning!

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