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updated: 8/9/2013 5:58 PM

Meteors to light up suburban skies this weekend

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  • A bright Perseid Meteor cuts across Orion's Belt during the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower in 1997. This time-exposure photo was taken from Joshua Tree National Park, 50 miles north of Palm Springs, Calif. You can see the meteor shower in the suburbs this weekend.

      A bright Perseid Meteor cuts across Orion's Belt during the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower in 1997. This time-exposure photo was taken from Joshua Tree National Park, 50 miles north of Palm Springs, Calif. You can see the meteor shower in the suburbs this weekend.
    Associated Press file photo, 1997

  • The moon won't outshine meteors this year during the Perseid meteor shower, which begins Saturday and will be visible through the early morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 13.

      The moon won't outshine meteors this year during the Perseid meteor shower, which begins Saturday and will be visible through the early morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 13.
    Photo courtesy of Adler Planetarium

  • People gather on the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton each year for the Adler Planetarium's annual Perseid Meteor Shower Star Party. This year's party is Monday night, Aug. 12.

      People gather on the grounds of Cantigny Park in Wheaton each year for the Adler Planetarium's annual Perseid Meteor Shower Star Party. This year's party is Monday night, Aug. 12.
    Photo courtesy of Adler Planetarium

 
 

Hundreds of meteors and bright fireballs will shoot across the suburban sky this weekend during what's expected to be an unusually good viewing year for the annual Perseid meteor shower.

This year, only a sliver of moon will be in the sky and it will disappear by 11 p.m., giving the suburbs a darkened and better view -- even in urban areas -- of the summer sky show.

As long as the clouds aren't too thick, the meteor shower will be visible from Saturday night, Aug. 10, through the early morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 13.

"You just want to get in a lawn chair or a comfortable chair, face northeast and look up," said Larry Ciupik, senior astronomer with Chicago's Adler Planetarium. "There's no reason to start looking before 9 o'clock (p.m.). Sunday and Monday nights will be the best. The darker the sky, the better."

Viewing parties are planned at a few suburban spots, including Saturday night at the Spring Valley Nature Center in Schaumburg, and Monday night at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Both parties will feature space-themed activities, telescope viewings of the moon and Saturn, and plenty of room for people to set up blankets and lawn chairs.

At Cantigny, Ciupik will give a presentation explaining where meteors come from, why this is happening and point out other interesting things going on in space.

As many as 100 meteors per hour are expected to hit the atmosphere during the shower, known for its abundance of "fireballs," which are very bright meteors. Each meteor is created by a particle the size of a sand grain. Even though it's tiny, it hits the Earth's atmosphere so fast -- about 50 miles per second -- that the intense friction creates a glow. The meteor shower happens every year at this time as the Earth rotates through debris from the Comet Swift-Tuttle.

"Imagine that this is a huge dust storm out in space, and we're going through it," Ciupik explained.

Retired teacher and astronomy buff Steve Loh of Hoffman Estates has seen the Perseid meteor shower many times and says the best viewing is after midnight.

"Most of the time, all you see is a quick, brief, tenth-of-a-second streak that's a hand's width across the sky. You can't say, 'Oh, look!' because by the time you look, it'll be gone," Loh said.

The fireballs are more impressive, said Loh, a retired astronomy and science teacher who taught at Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates high schools.

The fireballs originate as marble-sized particles, and burn brighter and longer as they disintegrate. They usually have a long, bright tail, and last three to five seconds, Loh said.

The real show, however, could come in November when the enormous Comet ISON makes a rare trip near Earth. Scientists say it could be "the comet of the century," appearing as bright as the full moon, even in daylight. But there's also a chance it could turn to dust as it nears the sun.

"It's either going to be the brightest comet anyone's ever seen, or a complete dud," Loh said.

The Perseid meteor shower, however, is a sure thing. While other meteor showers are visible in the suburbs, they're during the winter, when it's no fun to sit outside.

This one allows you to sit outside and see it from your backyard. No telescope is required, said Joe Kabbes, with Henize Observatory at Harper College in Palatine.

"Just get a blanket, lay on your back and look up," Kabbes said.

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