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What Is a Meteor Shower?

Summer break is almost over, but mid-August provides one more good reason to ask your parents if you can stay up late.

Photo via Shutterstock

That’s because this time every year is when the Perseid meteor shower fills the night sky with shooting stars — as many as 100 per hour! So where do these meteors come from?

Meteors are space rocks that enter Earth’s atmosphere. They streak through the air, creating the appearance of a shooting star. These space rocks, or meteoroids, can be as small as a particle of dust or as large as a boulder. They create streaks because they heat the air as they move through it. The streak you see in the night sky is the hot air, not the rock.

When we have meteor showers, it is because Earth is passing debris from a comet that has traveled through its atmosphere. This happens several times each year, and each has a meteor shower associated with it. For the Perseid meteor shower, the shooting stars come from debris from a comet called Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.

The Perseid meteor shower begins in July each year, but the best days for viewing it will be August 12 and 13. Technically, the best time to watch for shooting stars from this meteor shower is in the hours before the sun comes up. But asking Mom and Dad if you can stay up late is a lot more fun than getting up before the sun does. And as long as it’s dark, there’s a good chance you can see a meteor streak across the night sky.

The Perseid meteor shower is one of the best of many we have each year. The reason it is considered the best is because the meteors are very fast and very bright, making them easier to see.

The best place to look for shooting stars from the Perseid meteor shower is by facing eastward. That’s because the meteors appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, which is in the eastern sky. This point is called the radiant. If you were to trace the meteors back to where they originate from, it would be this spot.

You don’t need any special equipment to see meteors streaking through the sky. Just find a comfortable spot to sit or lay in a place with a dark, open sky. Give yourself at least a half-hour for sky watching. The meteors don’t follow any particular schedule, and it can take as long as 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark night.

If you are lucky enough to see a shooting star, don’t forget to make a wish!


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