Meteors often get called shooting stars, although they don't really have anything to do with stars. They are actually grains of rock, floating around in the Solar System, that happen to get too close to the Earth. As they plummet through the atmosphere, they burn up and create glowing trails through the sky that last for a second or so. If you sit outside on a clear dark night, watching the skies, you should probably see the odd meteor or two. They are really cool to spot although you can't really point them out to your friends as they are too fast. At certain times of the year, however, you can see whole showers of them. Meteor showers occur when the Earth smashes through the trail of debris left by a comet as it orbits the Sun. We know the Earth's orbit and those of quite a few comets very well, so the timing of these showers is easy to predict.
On the nights of the 11th and 12th of August, say from about 10 pm BST, you should stand a good chance of seeing the Perseid meteor shower. The Perseid meteors were shed from the Comet Swift-Tuttle, at some point in the past, and appear to come from a point (called the radiant) in the constellation of Perseus. When they hit the atmosphere, they will be travelling at a fairly fast 60 kilometres per second. If you live in Europe, North America, Russia, Japan (or anywhere else at about the same latitude) the map below should give you an idea where to look. It is probably best to look about 50 degrees away from the radiant - the point where all the white lines seem to be coming from.

Perseid Meteor Shower
An illustration of the Perseid meteor shower showing the radiant. This would be the view at about 11 pm BST on 11th or 12th August. CREDIT: Stuart/Stellarium
While you're looking for the Perseids, why not have a look to see if you can spot Mars, near the horizon, in the East? Mars isn't at its closest, but it is still an impressive sight through a small telescope.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 04th Aug 2005 (14:42 UTC) | Permalink
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