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August 7, 2012 > The sky is falling, the sky is falling!

The sky is falling, the sky is falling!

By Mauricio Segura

The sky is falling? No, not really. But if you stay awake during the predawn hours of August 11 - 13 and look up into the sky, you'll enjoy a free natural fireworks display. Every year hundreds of minor meteor showers light up the night sky; about a dozen are categorized as major. And of those, the Perseid Meteor Shower beginning this weekend is considered by most as one of the best of the best.
But what is a meteor shower? Where do they come from? Are they dangerous? All good questions class, and if you settle down, we will begin our Introduction to Meteor Showers 101.

To begin, meteor showers have nothing to do with the Mayans and the end of the world. In fact, meteor showers have been raining from the night sky before the Mayans even existed. Plain and simple, a meteor or shooting star, is space dust or debris that eventually enters and burns up in the earth's atmosphere. Every year Earth passes through remnants of the Swift-Tuttle Comet, which produces the Perseid show.

Many people call meteors shooting stars because that's what they look like - a fast streak of often multi-colored light shooting across the dark sky resembling a star falling from space. It's quite an impressive sight to see, but happens so fast it's easy to miss. And although the streak may seem quite big and travel across most of the open sky, the truth is that the rock, dust, and debris that produced it is more often than not about the size of a grain of sand. Sizes vary, but even a rock the size of a backyard trash can will most likely burn up long before it reaches the ground, so there is very little to fear.

One can view a meteor shower from almost anywhere. But how impressive it will be is determined by where, when, and how you view it. In the Bay Area, observers are hampered by light pollution. In fact, go out tonight and look up. You'll notice that the sky has a hazy tint of reddish brown. That may seem natural to someone who has lived in cities their entire lives, but in an isolated area, far from other lights, the sky appears black, dotted by stars. Some shooting stars are very bright and can be seen from practically anywhere, while others will be lost in city light haze. In a preferred viewing area, the Perseid shower usually peaks at 80 or more meteors per hour.

For a good, unobstructed view of the Perseid shower, you don't need to drive for hours though that would be ideal. Find somewhere dark enough for your eyes to adjust to the darkness without direct light interference. If you stay in a backyard, make sure all house lights are off. Another option is to go up into the hills and find an enclosed spot with a good view of the sky. Although escaping light pollution is not easy in city areas, your eyes can adjust to pick meteor flashes.

The Perseid Meteor Shower is a three day show, peaking on the second night - August 12. Meteors begin shooting across the sky around 11 p.m., but peaks between 1 a.m. - 4 a.m. However you watch the Perseid shower, you're in for a treat. Just cross your fingers that our friendly Bay Area fog stays away long enough to let us all enjoy one of nature's greatest shows!

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