Perseid meteor shower to 'graze' sky Thursday night

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 | 5:34 p.m. CDT; updated 11:10 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 12, 2010
In a NASA image from a previous August, a fireball meteor flashed through skies over Japan. Ending at the upper right, the meteor's trail points down and to the left, back to the shower's radiant point between the constellations of Perseus and Cassiopeia, seen here just above the tower structure in the foreground. The Pleiades star cluster is also visible well below the meteor's trail.

COLUMBIA — Columbia's night sky is likely to twinkle and spark Thursday night and into Friday morning, as the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower dazzles overhead.

Val Germann, secretary and former president of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, said the first part of the meteor shower features Earth-grazing meteors or what astronomers call "Earthgrazers." Those are expected to be visible from about 9 p.m. until midnight and will generally be traveling from east to west.

“They skim along the horizon and leave pretty trails,” Germann said.

People must be patient because there might not be many Earthgrazers visible, he said. If people are not paying close attention, they might miss the early, bright meteors entirely.  

“It’s a real die roll,” Germann said. “Meteors are so unpredictable."

Randy Durk, spokesman for the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, agreed. “You might see one. You might see 1,000,” Durk said. 

Along with patience, Durk suggested people find a dark spot to enjoy the meteor shower.

“The farther away you get from city lights, the better,” he said.

Spectators can thank the Swift-Tuttle comet for this annual meteor shower. Germann explained that the comet has a specific orbit, and as it moves around the sun, it sheds particles. When the Earth comes into contact with that orbit, the pieces come into our atmosphere at high speeds, appearing as bright meteors in our sky.

He said the best time to view the meteors is during the post-Earthgrazers second round, when our part of the Earth is moving “head on” into the densest part of the particle stream. This will occur Friday before dawn, causing the most meteors to be visible from about 3 to 5 a.m, he said. At this time, the meteors will appear to be traveling straight down.

“Go to as dark a place as you can and look high in the east and maintain a vigil for a couple of hours,” Germann said. “You’ll probably see about 30 to 40 meteors in two hours.”

For those wanting to see the meteor shower earlier in the night, the Central Missouri Astronomical Association will be stationed at its viewing site a few miles north of town. Germann said they have a good view of the horizon to the north and east and will gather about 9 p.m. Thursday until about midnight.

The public is welcome to join, but because of parking limitations, Germann would like people to RSVP to him at 445-0049. He'll provide directions then.

“This year should be a good show,” Germann said. “It’s sort of set up for North America this year.”

While gazing up at the night sky Thursday, spectators can also enjoy the alignment of Mars, Saturn and Venus in the shape of a triangle after the sun sets on the western horizon. The alignment will be viewable for a couple of nights before the planets move apart.

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