During the next few days the Perseids meteor shower will peak with an expected 50 to 80 meteors per hour. Perhaps the most famous of all meteor showers, the Perseids have been observed and recorded as far back as 36 AD by the Chinese (that is almost 2000 years ago). However, credit for the discovery of the shower’s annual appearance is given to Adolphe Quetelet of Belgium, who, in 1835 reported a meteor shower that occurred in August emanating from the constellation of Perseus. Thus the name "the Perseids" because the point they appear to come from, called the radiant, lays in the constellation of Perseus. The first observer to provide an hourly count was E. Heis from Munster, Germany who recorded a maximum rate of 160 meteors per hour back in 1839. Computations of the orbit of the Perseids between 1864 and 1866 by Schiaparelli (Italy) revealed a strong resemblance to a periodic comet named 19P/Swift-Tuttle which had been discovered in 1862. This was the first time a meteor shower had been positively identified with a comet. Every 133 years this huge comet swings through the inner solar system and leaves behind a trail of dust and gravel. When the Earth passes through the debris, specks of comet debris hit the atmosphere at 140,000 mph and disintegrate in flashes of light producing “shooting stars” with long tails.
The Perseids meteor shower is visible between mid July to mid August each year and this year should be no different from years past where most observers in the Northern hemisphere observed a spectacular shower of “shooting stars”. 2010 is a good year for Perseids because the Moon won’t up during the midnight to dawn hours of greatest activity. As Perseus rises and the night deepens, meteor rates will increase. The best time to observe is during the darkest hours before pre-dawn on Friday morning, August 13th, when most observers will see dozens of Perseids per hour. I am definitely going to stay up to observe the Perseids; I only hope that I can find a dark enough of a spot away from the city lights of Los Angeles.
If you are not sure where Perseus lies in the sky, the following sky chart from NASA Science News should help you find it in the night sky.