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Astronomers Predict Incredible Show As Perseid Meteor Shower Peaks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One of the best times of the year to look for shooting stars is the annual Perseid meteor shower. It will be at its peak later this week, and as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it's going to be an unusually good show.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Small pieces of rock or ice constantly bombard the earth. They burn up in the atmosphere, streaking across the night sky as bright meteors. You can see maybe five meteors an hour on an ordinary night, but when there's a meteor shower, you can see a lot more. That's because the Earth is running into a trail of debris left by a comet that's going around the sun.

BILL COOK: Dust comes off of it, and ice comes off of it. And when the Earth passes near or through this ring of material, we get a meteor shower.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bill Cook is with NASA's Meteoroid Environments Office. He says this year's Perseid meteor shower will be unusual because Jupiter's gravity has tugged some streams of comet material closer to Earth.

COOK: So we're going to have more meteors than normal hitting Earth.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the Perseid meteor shower typically has 80 to a hundred meteors per hour.

COOK: And this year we're going to have anywhere from 160 to 200 meteors per hour, so the rates are going to double this year.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says it'll be more than a decade before the Perseids have an outburst like this again. Grace Wolf-Chase is an astronomer with the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. She says nature is tricky, so predictions aren't set in stone. It's hard to know exactly what will happen this week.

GRACE WOLF-CHASE: I don't want to oversell it, but it should be a spectacular meteor shower.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says the peak will be Thursday night into the early morning hours of Friday.

WOLF-CHASE: The best time to look is between midnight and dawn.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: After the moon has set and the skies will be darkest. If you can't be outside for the peak or if clouds ruin your view, she says to keep trying in the days ahead. You should still be able to see some Perseids for about a week. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.