Movie meteors are massive hunks of rock with a penchant for crashing into passing spaceships, but the typical meteor in the real sky is only the size of a grain of sand.
Observant watchers may be able to see some of these small particles streak through the sky tonight and early tomorrow morning as the Perseids meteor shower makes its annual appearance.
“You don't want to use a telescope. A lawn chair is the equipment I would recommend,” said Dr. John Laird, chairman of the physics and astronomy department at Bowling Green State University.
But how can observers see sand-size space particles with the naked eye?
“The particles are moving fast; so they give the energy to the surrounding air molecules. Then the air gives off energy by glowing. It's actually the molecules glowing that we see,” Dr. Laird said.
The peak time for meteor viewing will be after midnight, especially an hour or two before dawn.
During the peak period, observers might be able to see up to 30 meteors an hour, according to Dr. Lawrence Anderson-Huang, director of Ritter Planetarium at the University of Toledo.
Dedicated astronomy buffs can try to catch an earlier glimpse of the meteor shower today from 9 p.m. to midnight at the University of Toledo's Brooks Observatory.
Staff members will be on hand to answer questions and point out constellations and other features of the night sky. Admission for the session is $2 per person, with children 4 and younger admitted free.
“We discuss more or less what the people there want to hear about,” Dr. Anderson-Huang said.
Weather forecasts call for clear skies tonight through early tomorrow morning.
“It should be a pretty decent night for viewing,” said Carl Babinski, a meteorologist with AccuWeather, Inc., a private forecasting firm based in State College, Pa.
The Perseids shower is named for the Perseus constellation, which sits in the northeast part of the sky. All the meteors appear to originate from that direction, but they appear all over the sky.
The meteor shower appears at roughly the same time each year because the cluster of particles intersects the Earth's orbit annually at the same point.
“The particles are actually orbiting the sun also; so we go through different ones every year,” Dr. Laird said.