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Perseids are the year’s best meteor shower

An expert explains why these shooting stars appear each August and how to see them.

A meteor streaks across the sky during the annual Perseid Meteor Shower in August 2021 in Spruce Knob, West Virginia. The Perseids happen each August when the Earth encounters the debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. (Bill Ingalls/AP)

Go outside tonight and look up. Chances are, you’ll see a bunch of shooting stars! But what are shooting stars, actually? And why are they easier to see on some nights than others?

“The technical term for a shooting star is a ‘meteor,’ ” says Carrie Nugent, a planetary scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts and author of the book “Asteroid Hunters.”

To understand where meteors come from, we need to first understand a few other objects found in space.

For example, there are comets, which are big balls of dust, gas and ice flying through the solar system. There are also asteroids, which are similar to comets but made only of rock.

Both comets and asteroids orbit the sun, and as they do, comets especially can begin to melt and leave behind a trail of debris, like the slime trail left behind by a snail, says Nugent. When the Earth travels through one of those trails, all those chunks of space junk slam into our atmosphere, where they heat up so much that they glow.

This is what you’re seeing when you see a shooting star — superhot space objects burning up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Most meteors disintegrate before they reach Earth, but sometimes a piece of rock is big and strong enough to crash where we can find it. These are called meteorites. Even though they’re from space, we can actually pick them up and study them, says Nugent. Once they cool off, of course!

Each August, the Earth travels through the path of debris left behind by the Comet Swift-Tuttle, and this creates a meteor shower known as the Perseids (pronounced per-SEE-ids). While shooting stars can be seen any night of the year, looking for them during the Perseid Meteor Shower means a lot more meteors per hour than normal.

As for the best way to see meteors, Nugent has a few tips. “You want to be in the darkest place you can easily find,” she says. “But you can absolutely see them from a nice balcony in a big city. You might just have to be patient.”

“My pro astronomer tip is that the best way to see a meteor shower is with a friend and a mug of hot chocolate. That way, the time passes a little bit faster,” says Nugent.

By the way, Nugent knows what she’s talking about. Not only has she officially named more than 20 asteroids, she’s also had a 4.5-mile-long asteroid named after her. “It’s in the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. It orbits the sun. And it’s fairly dark in color,” she says.

If you like looking for shooting stars, maybe one day you can name a piece of space rock, too!