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The possibility of seeing a rare fireball enter the atmosphere is a good reason to stay up late this week.

Nicole Clausing  – August 11, 2020

One night a few years ago, I was taking out the garbage when a light in the sky caught my eye. It was like a Roman candle, but strangely silent, and headed toward the Earth, not up. It was visible for several seconds, and then it winked out without making a sound. Unsettled, I headed back toward the house. Before I was inside, I felt a vibration through the soles of my shoes, and heard a low rumble. “First strange flares,” I thought, “And now we’re having an earthquake, too?”

An anxious hour or so later, news reports starting clearing up the mystery. What I and much of the Bay Area had seen (and felt) was an extra-large meteor—perhaps the size of a car—getting closer to the surface of the Earth than most meteors do. The sound was a sonic boom made by the big rock hurtling through the air at about 1,000 mph before disintegrating harmlessly. (The vibration I felt was caused by the sonic boom, too—this particular meteor, like most, burned up before it hit the ground.)

Why am I telling you this? Because a fireball like this is an awesome sight, and I don’t want you to greet it with fear like I did. Why am I telling you this now? Because there’s a very real chance that you might get to see a fireball of your own this week, as part of the Perseid meteor shower peaking on the night of August 11-12.

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The annual Perseids are generally regarded as the best meteor shower of the year because they not only produce a large number of meteors—as many as one a minute at its peak—but are also famous for producing the occasional dramatic fireball like the one I saw.  

How and When to Watch

How do you get to see one? The basic instructions for enjoying a meteor shower are simple: Look up. Don’t bother with binoculars or a telescope. They’ll just restrict your field of view too much. Your chances get better the more sky you can see, so try to find a large clearing, whether that’s an urban greenspace, a parking lot, or a beach. The darker your skies, the better—and the moon is a crescent this week, which helps. Meteor activity ramps up after midnight. The most intense period of the Perseids will occur in the pre-dawn hours of August 12, so if you’re prepared to sacrifice sleep, make it that night.

But if you’re not a night owl, or the weather doesn’t cooperate, don’t worry. The 2021 Perseid meteor shower peaks Thursday morning, but it has been producing an above-average number of meteors each night since mid July, and will continue to do so until the last week of August. So now is a golden time to spend some time looking at the night sky.


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