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Perseids meteor shower peaks next week

The  earth is passing through a debris stream that creates the annual Perseids meteor shower. This Perseids meteor shower photo was taken during a similar event on Aug. 12, 2009. (Photo by Pete Lawrence/nasa.gov)

The earth is passing through a debris stream that creates the annual Perseids meteor shower. This Perseids meteor shower photo was taken during a similar event on Aug. 12, 2009. (Photo by Pete Lawrence/nasa.gov)

PRESCOTT - Several residents of the Prescott area saw an astronomical fireball course across the night sky Tuesday, a reminder that the earth is passing through a debris stream that creates the annual Perseids meteor shower.

Rosemary Hamilton, of Prescott, said she saw an "orange ball" just before 10 p.m. Tuesday from the deck of her home near Iron Springs Road.

"It came across the sky from the northwest and dissipated right before the horizon," she said.

The Perseids meteor shower gets its name from the Perseus constellation, and the meteors entering the earth's atmosphere appear to radiate from the constellation.

"Generally speaking, meteor showers are when the earth passes through the path a comet took a long time ago," Northern Arizona University professor of physics and astronomy Kathy Eastwood said.

In the case of the Perseids, it's the Swift-Tuttle comet, which passes through the inner solar system every 133 years. Each time it passes, it adds to a growing debris field that dates back thousands of years.

Between mid-July and late-August each year, the earth passes through the debris field, and particles of dust enter the earth's atmosphere. This year, it's July 17 to Aug. 24.

Eastwood said the friction caused as meteors enter the earth's atmosphere converts motion into heat and light, causing the streaks of light seen from the ground commonly called "shooting stars" - though it's important to note meteors aren't stars at all.

"They go so fast that they burn up," she said. "It's the friction - it's moving against the air and slowing it down."

This year, the Perseids peak Aug. 12-13, which for meteor-watchers is good timing as the new moon is Aug. 14, making for a darker sky.

Eastwood said the second half of the night - any time after midnight - is best because the dark side of the earth is heading straight into the dust cloud.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California offers a few tips for viewing meteors:

• Get as far away from urban light pollution as possible and find a location with a clear, unclouded view of the night sky. If you enjoy camping, try planning a trip that coincides with dates of the meteor shower. Once you get to your viewing location, search for the darkest patch of sky you can find, as meteors can appear anywhere overhead.

• Be sure to dress for success. This means clothing appropriate for cold overnight temperatures, which might include mittens or gloves, and blankets. This will enable you to settle in without having to abandon the meteor-watching because your fingers are starting to turn blue.

• Bring something comfortable on which to sit or lie down. Plan to be patient and watch for at least half an hour. A reclining chair or ground pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky.

• Put away the telescope or binoculars. Using either reduces the amount of sky you can see at one time, lowering the odds that you'll see anything but darkness. Instead, let your eyes hang loose and don't look in any one specific spot. Relaxed eyes will quickly zone in on any movement up above, and you'll be able to spot more meteors.

• Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light. Both destroy night vision. If you have to look at something on earth, use a red light. Some flashlights have handy interchangeable filters. If you don't have one of those, you can always paint the clear filter with red fingernail polish.

Follow reporter Les Bowen on Twitter @NewsyLesBowen. Reach him at 928-445-3333, ext. 1110, or 928-830-9503.

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