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Annual meteor shower lights up night skies through Aug. 24

| Saturday, July 22, 2017, 10:18 p.m.
A meteor from the Perseid meteor shower is seen above Shenandoah National Park in Virginia on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015.
A meteor from the Perseid meteor shower is seen above Shenandoah National Park in Virginia on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015.

There's not a lot of fireworks to look forward to after the Fourth of July, but there's still plenty of reasons to look to the night sky — possibly 90 an hour for a few nights over the coming weeks.

The Perseid meteor shower, an annual astronomical phenomenon, began on July 17 and is expected to last until August 24. A brighter moon might get in the way of seeing the faintest meteors this summer but shouldn't obscure them all.

WHAT IS IT?

The shower starts each summer in mid-July and lasts until mid-August as Earth travels through the path of the Swift-Tuttle comet.

Lou Coban, manager of the Allegheny Observatory, said you can think of comets as giant snowballs loosely held together by gravity. Bits and pieces that flake off of Swift-Tuttle linger in space and are visible.

"You can trace them all back to the constellation of Perseus," Coban said. "That's where they get their name."

Two to five meteors an hour can be spotted any given night, under the right conditions, Coban said.

During the Perseids, as many as 90 meteors can be seen an hour.

"The problem is, the moon is going to be between full- and last-quarter (phases), which means the moon will actually interfere with seeing a good percentage of the faint meteors," said Tom Reiland, director of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh.

A meteor streaks through a bare patch of sky above Gainesville, Fla., during the annual Perseid meteor shower on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015.

Photo by AP

 

BEST TIME TO VIEW

Activity should be highest overnight Aug. 11-12, though plenty of meteors will pass before and after.

"On a good night," Reiland said, "the meteor showers are best to watch after midnight."

Less humid nights are preferable, as air moisture can amplify the effects of light pollution, like what occurs when high beams on a car are turned on in the fog.

In this early morning, Aug. 13, 2013 file photo, a meteor streaks past the faint band of the Milky Way galaxy above the Wyoming countryside north of Cheyenne, Wyo., during a Perseids meteor shower.

Photo by AP

 

TOP PLACES TO WATCH

"The best way to view any meteor shower is to get far away from city lights and get as much sky as you possibly can," Coban said.

Great views from Pittsburgh aren't likely, he said. Instead, he suggests traveling to Ligonier or Latrobe. The Amateur Astronomers will host a stargazing party Aug. 11 at Mingo Observatory in Finleyville, Washington County.

For those feeling more adventurous, Dennis Hill of Kiski Astronomers recommends a trip to Cherry Springs State Park in Potter County.

"They have some of the darkest skies east of the Mississippi River," he said.

Matthew Guerry is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2122, mguerry@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @MattGuerry.

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