This year's Perseid meteor shower looks set to be one of the best of recent years, with near perfect viewing conditions for observers in the UK. The peak of the shower will be at around 2300 BST on Thursday 12 August but activity will be strong into the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning. This is just two days after New Moon, meaning that our celestial neighbour will not provide any natural light pollution to spoil the view.
With cloudless skies and in a dark viewing site, observers can expect to see between 60 and 100 shooting stars each hour over the night of the peak. Even in light polluted cities you will still see around ten an hour.
The meteors appear to originate from a point in the constellation of Perseus (hence the name Perseid) that will be rising in the northeast at the time of the shower, but individual shooting stars can appear anywhere in the sky. Unlike many other astronomical phenomena, watching meteors needs no special equipment and in fact they are best viewed with the unaided eye.
This year there are many ways to share your observations. The Twitter Meteorwatch project will allow people to tweet their observations, which will be displayed online on a "meteor map," showing where the most meteors are being seen around the world.
"Meteorwatch is the perfect opportunity for astronomers and non-astronomers alike to come together to experience this wonder of our Solar system," says Adrian West, organiser of the Twitter Meteorwatch.
"We hope that thousands of people will get outside and look up this week. You won't have to wait long; if you get as far away as possible from streetlights you'll see a shooting star every few minutes -- maybe many more than that. And if you're under cloud, you can follow all the action on Twitter using the #Meteorwatch hashtag."
The Twitter Meteorwatch is being run in association with the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the British Astronomical Association (BAA), whose Project Perseid 2010 is looking to gather valuable scientific observations from keen stargazers.
The BAA's Meteor Section Director Dr John Mason explains: "Project Perseid 2010 will allow us to gather as many good observations as possible from around the world. This will provide important information about the dust which causes the meteors, allowing us to better predict future showers. Anyone can submit observations by using the guidance notes and observing form available on our website, and so take part in real science."
The relatively warm summer nights make this meteor shower one of the more comfortable to view, but some simple equipment can make things even easier. Warm clothing and a deck chair will allow you to sit outside in comfort all night and you should take along a red-filtered torch, a watch set accurately to the speaking clock, and some paper and pens, all of which will help you record what you see. More serious observers should take copies of the BAA report forms on which to record their observations.
The Perseid meteors are caused by particles burning up as they streak into Earth's upper atmosphere at 135 000 miles per hour (216 000 kilometres per hour). The material comes from Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last passed near the Sun in 1992. Enhanced activity accompanied that return and was evident for several years afterwards. The 2005 and 2007 returns of the shower proved fairly 'normal' whilst in 2008, there was a notable sharp spike in activity rising to in excess of 100 meteors per hour after the 'normal' maximum.
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