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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Perseid Meteor Shower Enlivens August Nights for Local Skywatchers

• Warm Weather and Waning Moon Create Good Viewing Conditions for Malibu Area Residents

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN

Marine layer permitting, Malibu residents, especially those who live in the west end of the community, where light pollution is less, will have a good opportunity to catch a shooting star or two this weekend. 
Just in time for the hottest weather of the year, and the warmest nights, the Perseid meteor shower will occur between Aug. 11 and 13, peaking before dawn on Aug. 11.
For more than 2000 years, sky watchers have observed the annual meteor shower. Named for the constellation Perseus— the location, or radiant, in the night sky where they appear to originate, the Perseids are actually associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle.
According to NASA, the comet orbits the sun every 133 years, and the Earth passes through the cloud of cometary debris—mostly ice and dust—left in Swift-Tuttle’s wake each August.
When conditions are right, the particles can create a spectacular display of shooting stars as they skim across Earth’s atmosphere, sometimes at a rate of more than 100 per hour, but even in a less than optimal year patient viewers will be rewarded with at least a few sightings.
This year, the American Meteor Society is predicting potential rates of up to 40 per hour at peak—just before dawn on Saturday morning.
 According to the AMS, the best times to watch will be Friday night-Saturday morning, and Saturday night-Sunday morning. The number of visible meteors increases after midnight, when the radiant is at its highest point above the horizon.
While there are relatively few visible meteors in the early evening, there is an increased chance for observers to see a rare “earthgrazer,” a long-lasting meteor with a long tail that travels on a horizontal path across the sky. 
Those hoping to spot a shooting star this weekend should chose a location with an open, dark view of the northeast sky. A reclining lawn chair or a camping or yoga mat can make meteor-watching a more pleasant experience. Patience is essential, too.
Stargazers willing to rise before dawn on the morning of Aug. 11 will be treated to the sight of the crescent moon rising above Jupiter and Venus—the three brightest objects in the night sky, in addition to an increased chance to see multiple meteors—Malibu weather permitting.
Although peak viewing occurs this weekend, stray meteors from the Perseid shower will be visible throughout much of August.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate this weekend, the forecast is good for three upcoming meteor events, including the Orionids, which will peak on the night of Oct. 20, when the moon is in its first quarter; the Leonids, on the night of Nov. 17, with an evening crescent moon; and the Geminids, on the night of Dec.13, with a new moon providing optimal dark skies.
More information on the Perseids and other upcoming meteor events is available online at www.amsmeteors.org

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