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Last Updated: Monday, 11 August, 2003, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
Perseids set for sky show
Skywatchers are preparing for the annual Perseid meteor shower, which should peak in the early hours (0200 BST, 0100 GMT) of Wednesday 13 August.

Meteor, AP
The "stars" are moving at 60 km/s
This year, Perseid observers are in for an added treat because a very bright planet, Mars, is also in sight.

"In a good, dark sky, you can expect to see up to 80 meteors per hour," said Robin Scagell, of the UK's Society for Popular Astronomy, "but this includes fainter ones."

He cautioned, however, that "because the Moon will be close to full, you'll not see as many meteors this year."

Comet debris

Meteors are streaks of light in the sky caused by blazing pieces of dust drawn into the Earth's atmosphere from near space.

The meteor particles, many no bigger than sand grains, come from comets which have passed through the inner Solar System.

Find out how to spot the Perseids with our guide to the night sky

On their journey around the Sun, the comets evaporate and leave behind a trail of gas and dust.

When the Earth ploughs through a comet's old trajectory, this dusty debris burns up in our atmosphere to form shooting stars.

The Perseid meteors owe their origin to Comet Swift-Tuttle, which last moved through the inner Solar System 11 years ago.

These shooting stars cross the sky at 60 kilometres a second.

Red invasion

The planet Mars is a major feature in the night sky at the moment. The orbits of Earth and the Red Planet are rapidly converging, and on 27 August they will be at their closest for 59,619 years.

The two bodies will be just 55,758,006 kilometres apart (measured centre to centre).

"Mars will be visible with the naked eye," said John McFarland from the Armagh Observatory.

"It should be the brightest object in the sky apart from the Moon."

At 0100 GMT on Wednesday, Mars and the Moon will be very close to each other in the sky. UK observers should look south.

To get the best view of the Perseids, the skywatcher will ideally pick a place in the countryside as far away from scattered light pollution as possible.

"The best time to watch the shower is after midnight," McFarland said. "But it would be good to watch as soon as it gets dark. One never knows; one might be in for a surprise."

It is always a good idea to make sure you have a comfortable way of viewing the sky - gazing upwards for long periods can cause neck strain. A garden lounger is one option.

A telescope or binoculars are not needed.

The Perseid meteor shower is also known as the "Tears of St Lawrence" since the peak of the shower occurs around the anniversary of his martyrdom in AD 258.


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