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Web Exclusive: Professors promise a brilliant Perseid shower tonight

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FILE - In this early morning, Aug. 13, 2013 file photo, a meteor streaks past the faint band of the Milky Way galaxy above the Wyoming countryside north of Cheyenne, Wyo., during a Perseids meteor shower. On Thursday night, Aug. 11, 2016 into early Friday morning, the Perseid meteor shower is expected to peak with double the normal number of meteors. Scientists call this an outburst, and they say it could reach up to 200 meteors per hour.

Bucknell professor Michele Thornley said people can enjoy watching "the river of stuff" falling down to Earth during the Perseid meteor shower. 

"The Perseid meteor shower happens every year in August when we pass through the Swift–Tuttle comet's orbit," but this year offers a particularly brilliant display, said Michele Thornley, Bucknell University associate professor of physics and astronomy

"Every time a comet comes close to the Sun, it deposits more stuff," she said. "We're passing through a part of the orbit where the comet lost a lot of material and Jupiter is also pushing material in and out."

Ned Ladd, her colleague at Bucknell University who is also a professor of physics and astronomy, said when particles from "the wake of the comet" enter the Earth's atmosphere, "they burn up" and leave trails. 

He said Friday morning after midnight will be the peak for meteor sightings, though people will still be able to see them the next few nights. "There will be 100 per hour. It will be a good shower."

Thornley said she expects to see some fireballs, which are colorful streaks that last a longer time than most meteors, in the sky tonight.

"There is so much light from [a rock] the size of a grain of dust," she said. 

Thornley said the Perseid meteor shower always inspires her to continue studying astronomy because it shows "the mismatch between what we see and what is happening up there." 

Ladd explained comets are formed in the "colder, outer region of the solar system" when ice and rock collide and congeal together over a long period of time. 

Ladd said people can only really see them when they are disrupted from their orbits and are tossed towards the sun. The Swift–Tuttle comet was only discovered in the 1800s but he said astronomers can review  records of the night sky to attempt to discern its age. 

"The beautiful thing about astronomy is how much we can discern just by looking at the sky from our position on Earth," Thornley said. 

Ladd said all anyone needs to watch the Perseid meteor shower tonight is a dark sky and the will to stay up past midnight. 

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