If the weather cooperates as forecast, tonight's sky should produce a fine midsummer light show as the annual Perseid meteor shower reaches its peak.
Astronomers say the Perseid shower should produce close to 100 "shooting stars" per hour.
The best time to watch will be after midnight, as the constellation Perseus rises high in the Northeast.
Clear skies are forecast tonight, with lows in the mid-50s, according to the National Weather Service. This year's display will be free of interference from bright moonlight, making the smaller meteors more easily seen than in recent years.
Scientists have linked the annual event to Earth's orbital passage through the track of Comet Swift-Tuttle. The comet, which returns every 130 years, last swept through this region of the solar system in 1992.
Unusually intense Perseid showers accompanied the comet's last return and continued into 1994. They are thought to be diminishing now, but meteor showers are notoriously unpredictable.
What observers see are believed to be grains of dust left behind by the comet's tail. They become briefly visible as streaks of light when they are heated by friction while colliding with the Earth's atmosphere.
According to an article in this month's issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, European peasants were among the first to notice the annual phenomenon. They associated it with the Aug. 10 anniversary of the death by torture of the early Christian martyr St. Lawrence and named the shower the "Tears of St. Lawrence."
Scientists recognized the Perseid shower as an annual astronomical event in the 1830s. Among the first was American Edward C. Herrick, who correctly guessed that they were caused by the Earth's passage through a particularly dusty region, perhaps of cometary origin.
Davis Planetarium Director Jim O'Leary said the shower lasts for several days, so observers could try again tomorrow night.
Howard County Community College is sponsoring a Perseid viewing tonight. It will begin at 9: 30 p.m. behind the tennis courts.
Viewing a meteor shower doesn't require special equipment. Maryland Science Center experts recommend that observers find a dark location with a wide view of the sky. Lie down on a blanket or a lawn chair and . allow 10 to 20 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the dark.
Pub Date: 8/11/96