Those streaks of light zipping across the sky this weekend may not be caused by lightning or man-made fireworks.
Instead, the light show more likely is from the Perseid Meteor Shower.
What are the Perseids? (BTW . . . say it like this: PURR -- see -- id.) They're the annual "shooting stars of summer," particles of dust that come fromComet Swift-Tuttle. While the comet is not near Earth right now (its next close pass to the sun is July 12, 2126), our planet each August passes through the comet's orbit and encounters debris from it. When the particles enter Earth's atmosphere, they "burn up" because of friction with our air and cause the light display.
Most meteor showers are best seen after local midnight when the side of Earth we are on is facing into our planet's orbit -- that is, it's as though we're looking out of the front windshield while our car is moving forward rapidly. Local midnight for us is about 1:20 a.m. at this time of year (because we're observing Daylight Saving Time and because we're west of the meridian that determines Eastern Time).
The peak of the shower is predicted to be around 2 to 3 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, which means it'll be daylight here. So for Pittsburghers, Sunday night-Monday morning (Aug. 11-12), say from around 1 to 5 a.m. and Monday night into Tuesday morning (Aug. 12-13) at similar times should offer optimum viewing.
I'd expect Sunday night-Monday morning to be the best overall. The Monday night-Tuesday morning is actually past peak so there is a chance things will be on the wane.
This does not mean you cannot look at other times! Certainly you can! The Perseids are visible over a long period of time; they're just at their peak as I described above. You should be able to see some all weekend.
Also, the moon will set before midnight so its light will not interfere with meteor observing.
I'm often asked: "Where do I look?"
My answer: "Up!"
While the meteors appear to come from the constellation Perseus, which rises before midnight in the northeast at this time of year, I tell people not necessarily to look in that direction. If you do, the meteors may be shooting past your line of sight to your left or right. The best thing to do is look into the darkest part of the sky from YOUR location. Get comfortable in a lounge chair and remember to have a blanket handy.
And by all means, get away from lights! From a dark location, there is a chance of seeing 90 meteors an hour. The Perseids are best known as the annual meteor that produces the most fireballs, or bright, brilliant meteors.
Where can people go to see the shower?
The Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh has two observatories that will be open Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights: http://www.3ap.org
*--Wagman Observatory is in Deer Lakes Regional Park in Frazer, Allegheny County, not far from Tarentum: 724-224-2510.
*--Mingo Creek Park Observatory is in Mingo Creek County Park in Nottingham, Washington County, about 10 miles east of Washington, Pa.: 724-348-6150.
Also, a new organization called Pittsburgh Space Weather -- http://pittsburghspace.org/ -- is holding a Saturday night Perseid event at Moraine State Park in Butler County. Here is a link to that information: http://pittsburghspace.org/2013/08/05/perseid-meteor-shower-important-updates/
So do yourself a huge favor: Turn off the lights, turn off the TV and turn onto the night sky!
Photo: Veteran astrophotographer Roberto Porto from http://www.space.com