The annual Perseid meteor shower, known for its prolific offering of "shooting stars," is expected to be even more spectacular in 2016.
The peak of the Perseid meteor shower will occur on Aug. 11-Aug. 13. The shower officially began on July 17 — when Earth first encountered particles left behind from the comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle — and will persist until Aug. 24. The comet was discovered in 1862, but its ensuing meteor showers have been witnessed for 2,000 years.
When comets enter the inner solar system, they leave behind particles (rock, dust and other assorted debris), and when these particles hit our planet's atmosphere, they heat up — sometimes with brilliant bursts of light. These ill-fated particles travel at 100,000 miles per hour just before they vaporize. The sizes of the meteors range from grains of sand to marbles. If you're lucky enough to catch sight of one of these doomed particles in the act, you've witnessed a shooting star. If the debris doesn't burn up, and it hits the surface, you've got a meteorite.
The odds of seeing shooting stars are best during meteor showers, simply because we know what to expect. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory points out that there could be up to 100 meteors per hour during the height of the Perseid meteor shower.
To get the most out of the experience, it's best to find a place far away from the artificial light of cities. The shower can be seen by the naked eye; no fancy equipment is required. Night owls will be happy to know that the pre-dawn hours (after midnight) will offer the best viewing time.
Meteor showers are named after the constellation from which they appear to originate. In this case, it's the constellation Perseus, which is located at latitudes between +90 degrees and -35 degrees and is named after the hero from mythology who killed Medusa.
Aside from this particular light show, there are plenty of other interesting facts to know about the comet behind it. Comet Swift-Tuttle is about 16 miles across, which is roughly the same size as the meteor that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. There was a scare in the 1990s that Swift-Tuttle would come into contact with the Earth sending us the way of the dinosaurs, but that theory was quickly debunked. However, according to SPACE.com, it's also the largest object "known to make repeated passes near Earth." The comet, last here in 1992, isn't due back until 2126. Fortunately, Swift-Tuttle has left plenty of particles in its wake for our enjoyment in the form of the Perseid meteor shower, proving that one comet's trash is an astronomer's treasure.