Perseid meteor shower hits its peak overnight

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The fiery streaks across the sky over Allegheny County early this morning had nothing to do with Zambelli.

Those who turned their attention to the heavens were treated to the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, the shooting star show best seen over the Northern Hemisphere this time each year.

Perseids not quite dazzling over Pittsburgh

It wasn't exactly a shower, but nearly 50 visitors still managed to spot a host of shooting stars overnight in the skies over Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory in Deer Lakes Park.

Observatory director Tom Reiland reported seeing between 45 and 50 of the shooting stars during the peak night of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Some clouds hampered observing early, he said, but skies cleared and hazy conditions persisted. He called the meteor shower "a disappointment."

"Usually, you get some decent fireballs, but there was nothing like that," Mr. Reiland said of the lack of brilliant meteors.

Several dozen visitors and amateur astronomers also viewed the show from the AAAP's Mingo Creek Park Observatory in Nottingham, Washington County. One observer reported seeing 71 meteors overnight.

Although the Perseids reached their peak overnight, the shower still can produce a spectacle for nights to come -- so get out this weekend to take a look. Debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle causes the annual display of shooting stars.

To learn more, follow this guide from NASA:

-- By Pete Zapadka

Tom Reiland, who in 1975 conceived the idea of building Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory, says the observatory's hilltop grounds in Deer Lakes Park is the best place for viewing meteor showers -- as well as stars, planets, comets and anything else in the night sky. Wagman Observatory is operated by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, founded in 1929.

Mr. Reiland was there Thursday night to unlock the gate and open the grassy area to eager star-watchers who brought blankets and folding chairs.

"With a meteor shower, you don't need the telescope," said Mr. Reiland, 64, director of the observatory. "A telescope narrows your field of vision. For a meteor shower, you want to see the whole sky."

The Perseids are linked to Comet Swift-Tuttle, trailing particles of dust and debris that burn across the sky. The shower is visible to observers for more than a month, but the peak displays usually occur in the second week of August.

The city lights of Pittsburgh don't do star-gazers any favors. In fact, they make it more difficult to see the stars.

"The further from the city, the darker the sky, the easier it is to see things," Mr. Reiland said. "This is the best viewing area in the county."

But it isn't just Downtown lights that hamper star-watching. Pittsburgh has more than its share of cloud-covered evenings. A bright moon can be another problem.

Still, in the 30 years that Mr. Reiland has been making the trip to Deer Lakes Park to see the Perseids, he estimates that half the nights have provided clear viewing.

Thursday night started out as one of those nights, as late-afternoon rain clouds dissipated and a red sunset drew back the celestial curtain for the show. But by 10:30, the gathering of 10 hopeful star-gazers was frustrated by another stretch of clouds that rolled across.

Jeanette Mosier, 20, a student at Gannon University of Erie, was a first-time visitor to the observatory Thursday night. Living in Carnegie while on a summer internship, she used the Internet to look up the best place for watching the Perseids.

"I usually travel out into the country," said Ms. Mosier, who has been an astronomy buff for more than three years. "The Perseids happen every year and it's always in August, when the weather is nice. You can see 60 to 100 meteors an hour, which is a lot.

"Sometimes you see a really bright one. You might see a fireball. It's fun. And it's a semi-spiritual experience. You're relaxing, you're laying on the ground. And you see thousands of stars and every once in a while a shooting star. It's one of the most beautiful things in nature."

She spotted the first meteor over Pittsburgh shortly after 9 p.m.

And she planned to stay well into the early morning hours to see the display at its best, which was expected to be at around 1:20 a.m. today.

Tom Piper, 67, of Hampton, and Ann Campbell, 78, of New Kensington, went to the observatory grounds for the show. A big fan of star-watching, Mr. Piper had never seen the Perseids.

"I usually just enjoy the stars and the planets," he said. "But people were talking about how spectacular this is, so I wanted to be here. But I'm not going to be here all night. I have an earlier bed time."

"I'm all excited about this," Ms. Campbell said. "I've seen [the Perseids] before, but never from a good location. So this should be great."

Mr. Reiland said the most awesome light show he ever saw was the Perseids show in August 2000.

"That also was the night we had a bright aurora at the same time, so it was doubly spectacular," he said. "It was one of the best sky display combinations I've ever seen. We were counting, and I think we saw more than a hundred in about two hours."

Dan Majors: or 412-263-1456.


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