By the light of the waning full moon, area residents will be treated to the Perseids meteor shower tonight, as quick luminous streaks scatter across the late night sky.

"They probably won't be as good this year because the big old fat moon will wash most of them out," said Geoff Chester of the Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. "But pack a thermos of coffee, sandwiches and a lawn chair and stare up at the sky for a few hours."

The Perseids return each August and can produce an average of 50 meteors an hour. Chester recommends staying awake past midnight and looking high overhead. As the meteors emerge from the northeast, looking straight up will give the skygazer a better angle, he said.

"They won't be completely obliterated {by the moon}. You still want to get away from the city, you want to get out in the countryside," Chester said. The moon rises tonight at 10:05.

Shower watching is really just a matter of watching comet trash. Periodic comets leave debris in their orbits. When Earth intersects these orbits, it hits the traces of cosmological junk.

Viewers won't need a telescope or binoculars, nor will they need to shield their eyes from the sun to see the Perseids (pronounced PUR-see-ids). This is a naked-eye event.

Chester said the meteors will appear to zip across the sky, as the Earth passes through the trail of comet debris. "It's like driving in a snowstorm with your high beams," he said.

Each piece of debris in a meteor shower is no larger than a millimeter in diameter, rendering such events harmless.

Tonight's shower is the debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle's orbital path. Astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle discovered the object independently in July 1862. It was the first of 11 comet discoveries for Swift. Tuttle discovered the comet from the Harvard Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., while Swift saw it from Marathon, N.Y.

The comet itself is not visible -- it's been 125 years since astronomers saw it. One local astronomer hopes to see it return before the end of the decade.

"The orbit is very uncertain," said Michael A'Hearn, an astronomy professor at the University of Maryland. "It's hard to determine its period accurately."

Astronomers had calculated that Comet Swift-Tuttle would return in 1982, said A'Hearn, who studies comets. He added that the overdue comet might be bigger than Comet Halley.

Astronomers know little about the components of these tiny meteors, he said.

"We don't know in any great detail," A'Hearn said. "Unfortunately, the ones you see have already burned up," he said, but he presumes they are made of such elements as carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen.

When the tiny comet fragments enter the Earth's atmosphere, the air immediately surrounding them grows bright. A'Hearn compared the effect to fluorescent light. For these meteors' lives, they'll be as bright as many of the stars in the sky.

Other meteor showers will take place later this autumn. The Orionids will shoot on Oct. 21, the Leonids on Nov. 17, the Geminids on Dec. 12 and the Ursids on Dec. 22. Dark skies will prevail, as the moon will be less bright for these events.

"In a dark location, without a moon, they are sufficiently spectacular to see," said A'Hearn.