Finally, look up.
We get not only fireworks on the Fourth of July but also nature's fireworks in mid-August. You can check out the Perseid — pronounced "PURR-see-id" — meteor shower tonight. This shower appears to emanate from the Perseus constellation in the northeast sky, hence the name.
Although the Perseids loiter in our heavens from July 25 through Aug. 20, these shooting stars peak this weekend. You can start looking up late tonight. If you are lucky, you'll observe a handful of meteors dart across the cosmos.
You'll probably see more after midnight, in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
The International Meteor Organization and "The Observer's Handbook 2012" explain that the zenithal hourly rate is about 90 to 100 meteors each hour. Although you'll never see that many, be happy with a few.
The shower supposedly will peak Sunday at 5 a.m. PT. That's near sunrise, so Saturday and Sunday nights could be your best chances.
Slightly dampening your observations after midnight, the waning moon rises in the east about late Sunday. Don't fret, however. It's just a crescent and shouldn't be too bothersome.
Meteors are nothing but a trail of cosmic dust left by comets. On its annual tour around the sun, Earth smacks into these trails. The debris strikes our atmosphere and burns brightly, and we see the resulting streaks. Comet Swift-Tuttle leaves the trail that causes the Perseid meteors. The dust trail is a "middle-age stream, still fairly compact," Neil Bone says in his book "Meteors."
Bone explains that these bits of dust are small, like the size of a grain of sand or instant coffee granules. These tiny pieces have little structural integrity and burn easily when they strike our upper atmosphere.
A special year
It's the sesquicentennial of Comet Swift-Tuttle's discovery. Early during the Civil War, two men -- hundreds of miles apart -- saw the apparition in July 1862, notes astronomer David Levy. Astronomer Lewis Swift found it July 16, 1862, from Marathon, N.Y., about 25 miles north of Binghamton. Because of Marathon's thin population, the dark heavens there remain a sky gazer's dream today.
Meanwhile, astronomer Horace Tuttle saw the comet July 19, 1862, from the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., just before he joined the Union Army. Later in his career, Tuttle joined the U.S. Naval Observatory. He died in 1923, and he's buried in an unmarked grave at Oakwood Cemetery in Falls Church, Va.
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