Perseid Meteor Shower 2012: Shooting Stars Sunday Morning

PHOTO: The Quadrantid meteor shower as captured by a photographer in Suffolk, England, is shown.Courtesy Dennis Boon
A shooting star from the Quadrantid meteor shower in January, as captured by a photographer in Suffolk, England.

Go outside in the wee hours of Sunday morning and, if the night sky is clear, you may see exquisite showers.

The Perseid meteor shower of 2012 is expected to peak Sunday between midnight and dawn, and if you're in a good, dark place, you might see more than 60 meteors -- shooting stars -- per hour.

Every year at this time, the Earth passes through the orbit of a comet called Swift-Tuttle, and we see meteors streaking across the night sky as pieces of debris from the comet -- most no larger than grains of sand -- enter the earth's atmosphere at more than 100,000 mph and burn up.

Although the comet is far away now, in an elliptical orbit that brings it close to the sun once every 133 years, rock and ice from it have spread out along its path. The comet itself will probably be pretty good to see if you can hang on until July 2126, but in the meantime, like clockwork, it gives us an annual meteor shower in mid-August.

This is a good year to look. There is a crescent moon that will rise in the east Sunday around 2 a.m., but it should not be bright enough to interfere with seeing in other parts of the sky. The weather is another matter; the forecast, especially for the eastern United States, is not promising.

Be alert; most meteors streak by in a second or less, sometimes in clusters. To see them well, find a nice, dark place with no street lights and as few trees as possible, and look up. You may be happiest in a lawn chair or a sleeping bag. Coffee and bug spray might be helpful, too. The streaks could appear anywhere in the sky, although they'll generally appear to come from the constellation Perseus, in the northeastern sky, after midnight.

In general, there are more shooting stars in the morning hours because that's the side of the Earth that faces forward as we orbit the sun, so it's less shielded. While the shower actually peaks early Sunday, Perseid meteors are often spotted several nights before and after.

The Perseid usually lets you see one or two shooting stars a minute, but only if you have dark, clear skies, and happen to be looking in the right direction. (Go to our weather page for conditions near you.) It's not hard to watch, and it can be quiet fun, but you do have to give up some sleep, and patience helps.

Here, we hope, are some useful tips:

Where to look? The whole sky, actually. The shooting stars will seem to come from the constellation Perseus, in the northeastern sky. But they may appear anywhere as quick streaks.

Where not to look? Don't look at the moon, or anything else bright. You want your eyes to get really, really used to the dark.

Where should I go? Any place will do, but darker is better, with a nice expanse of open sky. Get away from city lights if you can.

When to watch? The Perseid is best after midnight Sunday morning, but there might be meteors to see for several nights before or after. Depending on your schedule, it might be worth a look if Sunday morning doesn't work for you.

Special equipment needed: None. Just your eyes.

Can I take pictures? Sure. It might be fun. You need a camera with manual settings, though, and a tripod is a must. Set your lens to the widest possible setting. Set the ISO (sensitivity to light) to a high number, such as 400 or 1600. And -- this is critical -- your exposures need to be l-o-n-g. Experiment. An exposure of 30 seconds might give you a field of stars with a couple of streaks across it. Or you might try for an hour (close down the f/stop) and get very little.

What if it's cloudy? You're out of luck. Get a good night's sleep.