- The 2011 Perseid meteor shower, a gift from Comet Swift-Tuttle, reaches its peak on Aug. 12 and 13, 2011. (Photo of a Perseid meteor from past years courtesy of NASA.)
Folks on the East Coast who weren't aware that Earth is entering the peak of the 2011 Perseid meteor shower were swiftly and jarringly brought up to speed last night as crackling balls as bright as flaming magnesium started falling from the sky.
People reported seeing back-lit smoke trails and glowing trains in locations as far-flung as Commack, N.Y., North Brunswick, N.J. and Northampton, Mass. Around 9:30 p.m., Leach Nathaniel looked up at the heavens in Schenectady, N.Y., and saw "the most intense light I have EVER seen in the sky aside from lightning or the Sun." The bright-green fireball unfurled a trail of solid orange debris that segmented seconds later.
In Brooklyn, Todd Ledford saw a "huge" fireball – "the largest meteor I've ever seen" – pass behind the Manhattan skyline while glowing orange and deep red. Said Ledford:
In fact my first thought was that a plane was going down and it was unbelievably bright for being right above Manhattan – I've gone to to the country many times when I lived in Oregon to watch the August showers and I've seen some burners before but this one was huge and looked to be crashing right into upper mid-Manhattan – amazing how bright it was for being directly over the city-lit skies....
(For these and other observations from last night's spectral barrage, visit the forums of the American Meteor Society.)
So will New England get all the fun this year, or can D.C. expect a light show like the one brought on last December by terrifying meteors over Rockville, Md.?
It's quite likely that even the not-so-observant residents of D.C., Maryland and Virginia will catch a few Perseids this weekend. The peak of the August shower – the point at which Earth passes through the densest parts of Comet Swift-Tuttle's debris trail – occurs on Friday and Saturday (Aug. 12 and 13). Viewing conditions will not be optimal, with both a full moon and possible showers and thunderstorms Saturday night, but a few of these meteors will be large enough to create fireballs that even still will seem to illuminate the entire sky.
The best time to catch these guys is Saturday morning right before dawn. If the skies cooperate, expect anywhere from 20 to 100 shooting stars an hour. This is definitely a shower worth getting up early for: The International Space Station even is making an appearance around the same time. (Track the space station here.)
For more on this year's Perseids, here's a nice little video from NASA: