WASHINGTON, Aug. 12 (UPI) -- The Perseids are the shower of meteors produced by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The barrage of shooting stars will be at peak frequency across the Northern Hemisphere on Wednesday night.
To see them, onlookers in he U.S. should affix their gaze to northeast portion of the night sky, around the constellations Cassiopeia and Perseus. The ideal watching conditions run from 11:00 p.m. to sunrise, local time.
Sky-gazers can expect to see upwards of 50 streaking meteors per hour. And there's a chance for even more than that. According to NASA, there is the theoretical possibility of 100 shooting stars per hour.
Of course, shooting stars aren't stars at all, but the glow of debris colliding with the Earth's outer atmosphere. The Perseids are the product of a collision with the gas in Earth's atmosphere and the debris left behind by the Swift-Tuttle comet.
Comets are dense balls of rock and ice that take long, elliptical paths around the sun. As they approach and round our home star, the sun's energy sublimates the comet's ice, releasing gas and dust.
These comet fragments hang out in space. And when the Earth's orbit passes through, the particles -- most no bigger than a pea -- burn up. Traveling at 133,000 miles per hour as they enter Earth's atmosphere, the fiery fragments cause the air around them to glow, creating the streaks we know as shooting stars.
Because Earth's orbit sends us through the comet's tail of dust at the same time every year, astronomers know exactly when the Perseids will arrive in the night's sky. Whether or not they'll be especially bright in a given year is mostly dependent on weather and the moon's cycle.
Clear skies are predicted throughout most of the United States, and the moon is currently only a small crescent -- meaning its glow will do little to drown out the meteor shower.
If for some reason you can't make it outside tonight, the show will be pretty good on Thursday night too. NASA will also be broadcasting Wednesday's meteor showers on NASA TV.