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Perseid meteor shower 2016 offers a once in a decade 'outburst'

This year’s installment of the Perseid meteor shower is expected to deliver a double dose of shooting stars streaking across the night sky.

The celebrated cosmic show — which will reach its maximum intensity in the early hours of Friday morning — is known for the high number of spectacular meteors on display.

In past years, stargazers would have seen up to one meteor each minute, on average, in a very dark sky. But this year, there’s even more reason to stay up late or crawl out of bed in the middle of the night.

“We’re expecting 160 to 200 meteors per hour,” said Bill Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office.

Don't miss the Perseid meteor shower 'outburst' this week. Here are good places to watch »

At that time, the constellation Perseus will be nearly overhead, and meteors will appear as if streaking away from it.

And to really see the fireballs sizzle, get as far away from city lights as possible.

“Light pollution is the big enemy of meteors,” MacRobert said. “The darker the sky, the more of them you’re likely to see.”

But even if you can’t get out of the city, find a dark spot with a good view of the sky and be patient. 

Make sure you orient yourself so that you are facing away from the moon and artificial lights and avoid the urge to look at your phone. It takes between 30 and 45 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Experts suggest using a red-light flashlight to preserve night vision.

Then sit back, look up and enjoy the show.

This year’s “outburst” of shooting stars was set into motion more than a year ago, when Jupiter passed closer than usual to the stream of dusty debris left in the wake of the comet Swift-Tuttle. Jupiter’s gravity field tugged a large clump of the tiny particles closer to Earth’s eventual path.

These intense displays happen once a decade or so, Cooke said. The next one won’t be until 2027 or 2028.

As Earth passes through the trail of rubble left behind by Swift-Tuttle, tiny grains of dust and debris crash into the atmosphere at around 37 miles per second.

Perseid Meteor shower explainer
Perseid Meteor shower explainer (Raoul Ranoa)

Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky and Telescope, likens the Perseid meteors to “a handful of Grape-Nuts.”

As the particles collide with Earth, the air around them heats up and they vaporize instantaneously — creating the flash of light seen from the ground.

Most shooting stars appear brightly for one or two seconds, MacRobert said, but the brighter ones can linger for several seconds and zip farther across the sky.

Viewing the meteor shower this year will be made slightly trickier because of the moon, which will be in quarter phase. The best time to head outside will be after the moon sets, between 1 a.m. and dawn local time.

megan.daley@latimes.com

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