Few sights are as thrilling as the fiery spectacle of a meteor - also known as a "shooting" or "falling" star. Unfortunately, the appearance of a meteor can't really be predicted, but each year during mid-August, stargazers flock to the mountains or deserts to view one of the year's most reliable displays: the Perseid meteor shower.
Photographing the event is also possible, even with a digital camera. Simply aim your camera about 45 degrees up and about 45 degrees away from Perseus, set your ISO to a relatively high number (e.g., 400 or 800), open the lens all the way, focus on infinity and take time exposures of 30 seconds to several minutes long. If you're lucky, your film will show parallel star trails caused by Earth's rotation and possibly one or two meteor streaks crossing these trails.
This year's shower is expected to be particularly good because bright moonlight will be nowhere to be found, and the meteors will blaze across a beautiful, dark sky.
The Perseid shower occurs when Earth slams into the dusty debris expelled by comet Swift-Tuttle. As this cometary litter plows into our upper atmosphere, it is incinerated and produces the phenomena we know as meteors. Most are specks of dust no larger than a grain of sand that are extinguished 50 miles or more above Earth, so there's no need to wear a helmet.
We expect this year's shower to peak during the night of Sunday, Aug. 12, or the morning of Monday, Aug. 13, when stargazers under a dark, rural sky should be able to count as many as 60 to 100 meteors every hour - all appearing to radiate from the general direction of the constellation Perseus in the northeast.
To watch the shower, all you need is a site far from city lights, a lawn chair or sleeping bag and perhaps a blanket or hot chocolate to keep warm. The best tools for observing the shower are eyes, but binoculars might come in handy for checking out long trails left behind by any exploding fireballs.
Our best view typically comes after midnight and before dawn, but when you look, don't stare at the shower's radiant in Perseus. Look around the entire sky because meteors can - and will - appear everywhere.