In astronomy, there's nothing quite like a bright meteor streaking across the glittering canopy of a moonless night sky. The unexpected flash of light adds a dash of magic to an ordinary walk under the stars.
New research by NASA has just identified the most magical nights of all.
"We have found that one meteor shower produces more fireballs than any other," said Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office. "It's the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on Aug. 12 and 13."
Using a network of meteor cameras distributed across the southern USA, Cooke's team has been tracking fireball activity since 2008, and they have built up a database of hundreds of events to analyze. The data point to the Perseids as the "fireball champion" of annual meteor showers.
A fireball is a very bright meteor, at least as bright as the planets Jupiter or Venus. They can be seen on any given night as random meteoroids strike Earth's upper atmosphere. One fireball every few hours is not unusual. Fireballs become more numerous, however, when Earth is passing through the debris stream of a comet. That’s what will happen this August.
The Perseid meteor shower comes from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every year in early- to mid-August, Earth passes through a cloud of dust sputtered off the comet as it approaches the sun. Perseid meteoroids hitting our atmosphere at 132,000 mph produce an annual light show that is a favorite of many backyard sky watchers.
Cooke thinks the Perseids are rich in fireballs because of the size of the parent comet.
The Fox Valley Astronomical Society club suggests Peck Farm Park, 4038 Kaneville Road in Geneva, IL, as a viewing area.
The group also hosts start parties at Peck Farm, and the next one is Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013.
At its peak, the Perseids meteor shower could display up to 40 meteors per hour in the pre-dawn hours Sunday. The American Meteor Society recommends viewing this meteor shower between midnight and dawn.
In general, get as far away from city and other artificial lights as possible. Meteor showers are best viewed in really dark skies. Try to keep the moon out of your field of vision, too.
Be patient. It may take your eyes a few minutes to adjust to the light and see the meteors.
You don’t need binoculars or a telescope — that will only limit the amount of sky you can see.
The Fox Valley Astronomical Society consists of members from Batavia, Elburn, Geneva, St. Charles and the surrounding communities and is committed to providing "out of this world" celestial experiences for adults and youngsters of all ages, its website says.