Most years, on the night August 11, and into early morning on August 12, you can see the Perseid meteor shower. Next to eclipses of the Sun and Moon, shooting stars are about the most exciting astronomy events you can hope to see. To see the Perseid shooters at their best, it's best to be in a rural area, somewhere away from the city lights which spoil the quality of the night sky. However, I've seen a fair number from my light-drenched backyard, not far from a major freeway.
Also, more shooters can be seen in the early morning hours before sunrise, about 3:30-4:30 AM, before the onset of morning twilight. This would be ideal for people who work shifts that are very late or very early. Of course, if you work regular hours like me, you'll probably be sleeping at that time, and so will your kids. We got the kids out of bed in November, 2001 for the great Leonid shower, and that was something for everyone to remember! The Perseids won't be as good as that, but they are usually the most consistent and reliable meteor shower of the year.
The Perseid meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast over the course of the night. So look in this direction while watching for Perseids. The meteors will appear in any part of the sky, but you can always trace them back to the radiant in Perseus.
Also, if you're going to bother watching at all, plan on staying outside for at least 20 minutes to a half hour. This activity requires patience, and if you stick your head out for a only minute, you probably won't see anything. Throw down a blanket in the backyard with the kids and lie on your backs. It'll be fun! Your efforts will be best rewarded if you have a wide-open patch of the sky, clear mostly to the horizon. Also, the darker the sky, the brighter and more impressive the shooters will be. Since meteors happen at random times, they are always startling to see, and can make you jump out of your skin!!!
The Perseid meteors were observed during the Middle Ages. The Perseids were then known as "The Tears of St. Lawrence" since they occurred near August 10, the Feast of St. Lawrence. You can read about St. Lawrence in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Lawrence was a deacon in Rome in the third century, and was martyred during the eight persecution of the church under the Emperor Valerian. The Roman bishop Sixtus and four deacons had been martyred four days before Lawrence.
According to tradition, the Roman prefect had demanded that Lawrence hand over the valuables of the church. Lawrence showed the prefect the sick and poor of the church, and said, "Here is the church's treasure." The enraged prefect had Lawrence thrown onto an iron griddle and roasted to death over a fire. According to one unlikely story, Lawrence asked to be flipped over as he was done on that side! Lawrence had been one of the most famous Christian martyrs of Rome, and was long remembered in the Perseid meteor shower.
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