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Where And When To See The Perseid Meteor Shower

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The Perseid Meteor Shower over Joshua Tree National Park, August 2012. (Photo by Nate2b via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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The annual Perseid meteor shower graces our skies every August, but this year's showing is slated to be especially spectacular.

The celestial extravaganza will begin just after 10 p.m. on Thursday night, August 11, but the best time to see it will be in the hours after midnight and before dawn, early on Friday morning. NASA reports that there may be some meteor activity on Friday and Saturday night as well. Here's what you need to know, and where to go for the best possible view.

But first, a little background. The meteor shower is named after after the constellation Perseus, from which they appear to emerge from in the north sky. The "shooting stars" you'll see this weekend aren't actually stars; they're debris left behind from an ancient comet called Swift-Tuttle. Named for the two astronomers who discovered it during the Civil War, Swift-Tuttle—which last passed close to Earth in 1992—has been releasing particles for thousands of years. Every year in August, as the Earth's path and the comet's path reach their closest point, those particles of comet-stuff from Swift-Tuttle drift into our atmosphere, where they disintegrate in flashes of light. The Perseids move so fast (approximately 37 miles per second!) that they excite the atmosphere as they move through it, making the atmosphere itself glow because of the energy, according to Stephen J. Edberg, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Those particles from Swift-Tuttle can be "as small as campfire smoke or as large as your hand, maybe even a little bigger," Edberg told LAist.

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This year's showing will be especially dazzling thanks to Jupiter's gravitational pull, which has tugged some of the streams of comet material especially close to Earth. A typical Perseid shower features 80 to 100 meteor showers per hour, but as Bill Cooke, the head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, told NPR, on Thursday night "we're going to have anywhere from 160 to 200 meteors per hour. So the rates are going to double this year."

Edberg has a few suggestions for Angelenos hoping to see as many Perseids as possible, starting with location. To begin, you'll need to get out of the "urban canyons of Los Angeles, amid all the tall buildings" and station yourself somewhere you can see the whole sky, or at least a large part of it.

"Our cities generate a lot of light that wipe out everything but the brightest stars," as Edberg explains, so you'll want to be somewhere that is as dark as possible.

Think wide open spaces that are—at the very least—on the outskirts of the city. Edberg suggests the Santa Monica Mountains west of the 405, anywhere in the Angeles National Forest, or somewhere up the Angeles Crest Highway as good possible viewing spots. If you're really feeling ambitious, go out to the desert east of Los Angeles—Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Park make for great meteor-watching.

Check out the map below for more ideas on where to view the meteor shower. The orange pins are places roughly within an hour of downtown L.A., and the blue ones are further afield (click on any for more information).

Once you have your location squared away, there are a few more ways to maximize your Perseid experience. Bring a chair or a sleeping bag and make yourself comfortable. The key to observing meteors is looking into the open sky, and if you're standing up, you'll have a harder time looking up for long periods of time. You'll also see more if you are not looking straight at the constellation Perseus, according to Edberg. Instead, position your eyes about 45 degrees from the constellation, and about 45 degrees above the horizon. And don't forget to bring something warm to wear if you go up into the mountains!

Here are a few more tips from Rhiannon Blaauw of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office: