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Looking At The Perseid Meteor Shower? So is NASA.

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NASA/Bill Ingalls
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In this 30 second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid meteor shower Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Spruce Knob, West Virginia.

The Perseid meteor shower is at its peak right now. If you’re the super-early-morning type (like 3:00 AM early) it can make for a great light show.

But researchers at NASA keep an eye on events like this for different reasons, not least of which is the risk they can pose to satellites and spacecraft in Earth’s orbit.

What is the Perseid meteor shower, anyway?

Meteor showers are caused when the earth runs into a stream of debris left behind by a comet or an asteroid as it moves in its orbit around the sun. The Perseid fields are caused by the debris left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle, which is one of the bigger comets in the solar system.

“And every year in the middle of August we run into the debris trail,” explained Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “And when that debris hits our atmosphere at one hundred and thirty-two thousand miles per hour it burns up and leaves these brilliant streaks of light we call Perseid meteors.”

It’s not that we’re passing near the comet itself, but rather the comet’s debris field.

“We don't want to be close to the comet,” Cooke said. “That would be a very bad day. Fortunately, that does not happen.”

The dust and debris from the comet burn up in our atmosphere, but in space, there is no atmosphere. That’s where the danger comes in.

“So those particles can strike the surfaces of spacecraft or hit solar arrays or even astronauts on the E.V.A. [extra-vehicular activity],” he said. “Basically we can tell spacecraft and manned vehicles when to batten down the hatches.”

Here on Earth, Cooke has two tips for watching the Perseid shower.

Number one, give your eyes 30 to 45 minutes to adjust to the dark.

“Don't expect to go outside, stand on your front porch, and expect Perseids to suddenly materialize,” he said.

Number two, avoid looking at your cell phone while you’re waiting.

“The light from the cell phone trashes your night vision,” he said.

 

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.