A CELESTIAL light show is promised tonight – weather permitting – as the Earth ploughs through a thick cloud of comet dust.
The Perseid meteor shower, which puts on a display at this time every year, is now approaching its maximum intensity.
It will peak today, sending shooting stars across the sky at a rate which could reach two a minute.
This year’s Perseid show promises to be spectacular as there will be virtually no moon, and the meteor numbers are expected to be higher than usual.
The Perseids, which have mystified and terrified sky watchers for nearly 2,000 years, are so named because they appear to emerge from the eastern constellation of Perseus.
The meteors are small bits of debris shed by a huge six-mile-wide comet, Swift-Tuttle, that sails into our solar system from a distant region of space beyond the planet Pluto every 135 years.
Ten years ago, Swift-Tuttle passed the sun, and it is now heading back towards the far-off Oort Cloud on the outer edge of the solar system, which is home to millions of similar comets.
When the Perseid particles hit the top of the Earth’s atmosphere at 135,000mph, they become glowing hot and appear as bright shooting stars criss-crossing the sky in all directions.
Most meteors produce bright white streaks, but sometimes they can burst like fireballs.
Robin Scagell, of the Society for Popular Astronomy, said: “The best time to watch will be from about 10pm onwards. The meteors will appear to come from the east, but can appear anywhere in the sky.
“There could also be random meteors as well, not connected with any particular shower, as there are plenty of these on August nights as well. You can be anywhere in the UK, but as always it’s best to be away from lights and in the country.”
“Try to see as much of the sky as possible for the best chance of seeing a shooting star.”
He said people often thought they could hear meteors landing. But this was impossible, since they burned up at least 50 miles up in the atmosphere.
Swift-Tuttle was first observed in 1862 by two American astronomers, Lewis Swift and Horace Parnell Tuttle, who gave the comet its name.
The earliest record of the Perseids can be traced as far back as AD 36 in the annals of China’s Han Dynasty. After this time they were described again and again over the centuries in Asia and Europe.
In medieval England they were called “the burning tears of St Lawrence” that fell from the sky every August around the anniversary of the saint’s martyrdom by the Roman emperor Valerian in AD 258.
In 1992, a US astronomer, Brian Marsden, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory, calculated that, in 2126, Swift-Tuttle could collide with the Earth and wipe out the human race. Later that year, new figures showed that the comet would pass a comfortable 15 million miles from the Earth.