Aug. 11, 2013 — -- Get the blanket ready and find a nice patch of grass because tonight the annual Perseid meteor shower is expected to bring its exquisite star showers.
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 enter the earth's atmosphere at more than 100,000 mph and burn up. The Perseid can be seen during the last week of July or first week in August, but the peak will come tonight -- the evening of Sunday, August 11 into the morning of Monday, August 12.
According to Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office, the best time to see the showers will be right before dawn.
"It's not one of those things where you can go out for 30 minutes after sunset," Cooke told ABC News. He added that while your eyes are all you need -- no binoculars necessary -- you need a couple of minutes to adjust to the dark. If the conditions are good -- clear skies and far away from city lights -- you might see more than 60 shooting stars per hour.
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The shower is visible anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, if weather conditions permit. According to AccuWeather, conditions should be good for viewing in the Northeast, but in the mid-Atlantic, especially Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and on the immediate West Coast visibility might be impacted due to clouds. The crescent moon, which creates for darker skies, should aid in the visibility.
Ultimately, though Cooke says don't worry about all those details and just "lie flat on your back, look straight up and enjoy the show -- it's nature's fireworks display."
If you do decide to venture outside tonight, here are some useful tips.
Where should I 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 should I not to look? Don't look at the moon, or anything else bright. You want your eyes to get 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 Monday morning.
Do I need any special equipment? Nope, forget the binoculars, all you need is your eyes.
Can I take pictures? Sure, you can try, but a smartphone camera probably won't do. You'll want a camera with manual settings 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 should be checking the weather regularly, including the radar to see what the conditions will be like. We'd suggest one of these weather apps. If it is cloudy, you're probably out of luck, but, hey you'll get a good night's sleep.