Here comes the best meteor shower of the year: How and when to watch the Perseids

Perseid meteor shower will peak after midnight Monday

BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK, UT – AUGUST 12: A Perseid meteor streaks across the sky above Inspiration Point early on August 12, 2016 in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. The annual display, known as the Perseid shower because the meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus in the northeastern sky, is a result of Earth’s orbit passing through debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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It’s not a blockbuster new movie, a hot series on Netflix or a baseball playoff game.

But starting this weekend, there’s a good show opening — for people who are willing to get up very early, go outside and stare into the night sky: shooting stars, lots of them.

The Perseid meteor shower, an annual event every August that astronomers consider among the most reliable and best-known meteor showers, is expected to peak after midnight on Monday and into Tuesday morning.

For people hoping to see waves of shooting stars streaking across the heavens, however, there’s one caveat this year. A nearly full moon early Tuesday morning will make the sky somewhat brighter than normal, and some of the fainter meteors won’t be visible.

So instead of roughly 60 an hour, as there have been in past years, there might be 20 or 30 shooting stars an hour this year, experts say. Going out one day early, after midnight on Sunday, might work better. And stargazers out Saturday after midnight and into early Sunday morning also will see some.

“There is a beautiful universe out there, a beautiful world of the night sky,” said Andrew Fraknoi, emeritus chairman of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. “When you have a meteor shower, it’s really for the 99 percent and not the 1 percent. It’s for anybody. You don’t need special equipment. You don’t need a telescope. Shooting stars are democratic. They happen all over the sky. Anyone can participate.”

The best way to watch the astronomical fireworks is to go outside, turn the lights off and look for a broad patch of sky, away from trees. Face northeast.

The more remote your location, the more shooting stars you will be able to see. Don’t go to the beach. Fog might block the view.

Among the top Bay Area spots for viewing the meteor shower: Henry Coe State Park in Morgan Hill, Mount Diablo Road in Contra Costa County, Skyline Boulevard through Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, Redwood Road above Oakland, most peaks in the North Bay, where there is less light pollution from big cities, or nearly anywhere up high and out of the forest in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Chabot Space & Science Center in the Oakland Hills will be holding an outdoor viewing event from 11 p.m. Monday until 3 a.m. Tuesday, with experts on hand to explain the science. Cost of admission is $8.

The Perseid meteor shower, first documented by Chinese astronomers in 36 A.D., is named because the shooting stars seem to come from the direction of Perseus, a large constellation in the northern sky.

But the “shooting stars” aren’t really stars. The shower occurs when the Earth, as it orbits the sun, crosses over a trail of dust, dirt and other debris from a comet, Swift-Tuttle, which takes 133 years to orbit the sun. The debris is left behind the comet and creates a giant oval that extends from beyond Pluto to around the sun.

As Earth passes through the celestial debris every year, some of those tiny bits of sand, metal and rock burn up as they come into contact with Earth’s atmosphere, creating the flashing trails across the night sky.

According to NASA, Perseid meteors are moving at 132,000 miles per hour. That’s 250 times faster than a commercial jet aircraft. If you could ride a Perseid meteor from San Francisco to New York, it would take about 1 minute, instead of 5 hours by plane.

When those small pieces of dust, sand, rock and metal hit Earth’s atmosphere at that incredible speed, they burn up — at temperatures ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 degrees, roughly 10 times hotter than lava from a volcano — and they make bright streaks of light across the sky.

“It’s a spectacle. It’s a really beautiful and startling thing sometimes to see a meteor,” said Ben Burress, staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center in the Oakland Hills. “You never know where or when one is going to appear or how bright it is going to be. The smaller ones are just flashes, but the bigger ones can be like going to a fireworks display.”

Perseid meteors pose no danger to Earth, according to NASA. Most burn up 50 miles above the planet.

Comets are giant balls of rock and ice left over from the formation of the solar system 5 billion years ago. So when you see a shooting star, you are essentially watching the flame outs of tiny, primeval parts of space.

“There is something majestic and awe-inspiring about that,” Fraknoi said.

The particles then drift down to Earth, where they fall onto land, into the ocean or become part of the air we breathe.

The main thing to remember when you go outside and look up? Be patient.

“People often say, ‘Let’s go see it,’ ” said Fraknoi. “They wait for 10 minutes and say, ‘I don’t see anything. The newspaper is lying!’ But It takes a while for your eyes to adapt. It’s like a movie theater. It might take 10 minutes for your eyes to adapt and another 10 or 15 minutes before you see one.”

He added, “Oftentimes, this time of year, people are on vacation or they are camping and they look up and say wow! I’ve never seen a shooting star.”

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