The Perseid Meteor Shower could not have peaked at a better time in 2012, falling as it does right in the middle of the weekend. But where is the best spot to view the annual phenomenon and when?
The most reliable of stellar delights, the Perseids sparkle in the night sky each August as Earth passes through debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The "shooting stars," as they are commonly known, are the result of space particles from the comets encountering the thin upper atmosphere of Earth at extremely high speeds and, thus, heating to incandescence.
Most meteor forecasts predict the Perseids display to be at its best across North America Friday through Sunday, with Saturday being your best bet for as many as 100 shooting stars per hour. Prime viewing each night is generally between 9:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. when the meteor shower will be high above the horizon, but avid star watchers caution to allow at least 15 minutes for eyes to adjust to the dark (though the waning crescent moon won't help).
"If you don't see any meteors at first, be patient. This is a meteor shower, not a meteor storm. There will be a lot more meteors than you would see on a normal night, but they will still only come at random intervals, perhaps 20 or 30 in an hour," Space.com skywatching columnist Joe Rao notes.
"When you do see a meteor, it will likely be very fast and at the edge of your field of vision," he adds. "You may even doubt that what you saw was real. But, when you do see something, watch that area more closely, as two or three meteors often come in groups down the same track."
Because eight out of 10 Americans are now urbanites who might not have the best view of the sky from their front stoop, here's a look at some star-watching havens and Perseids events close to the 10 biggest metropolitan areas in the United States.
New York City
About an hour-and-a-half west of New York City, you'll find Jenny Jump State Forest, home to the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey's Greenwood Observatory. A dedicated group of amateur and professional sky watchers provide free public programs each Saturday evening throughout the summer beginning at 8:00 p.m.
Two hours east of Los Angeles is the surreal Joshua Tree National Park, an excellent "dark spot" to stargaze. If you want to see the stars with a crowd of enthusiasts, the Mojave Desert Land Trust will host the Perseid Meteor Shower Star Party in Landers, Calif., just outside the park boundaries.
Less than two hours from Chicago or Milwaukee is the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. The University of Chicago observatory, which calls itself "the birthplace of modern astrophysics," will run a program Sunday night from 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. where participants can use small telescopes and observe a variety of astronomical sights.
Forty minutes north of town, the Texas Astronomical Society will hold its Starfest Star Party at Frisco Commons Park in Frisco. Astronomers will set up approximately a dozen telescopes for the free event, which begins at dusk and concludes around 10:30 p.m.
Head about an hour south to the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park for the Saturday Night Stargazing program. The observatory will remain open until 2:00 a.m., and tickets to view the night sky through the 11-inch refractor and other large domes will be available from 9:00 p.m. to midnight for $5 per person.
About 30 minutes outside of town, Valley Forge National Historical Park is a good bet for dark skies, but if you want to make the four-hour hike to Coudersport, Penn., Cherry Springs State Park is one of the best spots in the area to catch the star show and will have a laser-guided tour of the constellations and offer viewings of planets and other deep space objects with the park's telescopes.
The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club will hold two public viewings this weekend. On Friday, they will gather at Great Meadow in the Plains. On Saturday, they will gather at C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County. Both events are from sundown to around 11:00 p.m., and visitors are encouraged to bring their own telescopes or binoculars.
The Southern Cross Astronomical Society meets Saturday nights for free stargazing programs with telescopes, lectures, slide shows and more at the Bill Sadowski Park from 8:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.
The search for clear skies will take the Atlanta Astronomy Club two hours north to Brasstown Bald, Georgia's tallest peak, on Sunday at sundown. The crew will hold a dark sky observing session for just $3 per person (the fee to access the parking lot).
About an hour north of the city, the North Shore Astronomy Club will hold an event at Veasey Memorial Park in Groveland. Other good dark sky spots a bit further from Boston include the Cape Cod National Seashore and the back roads of Western Massachusetts.