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Chances slim, but not impossible, for city meteor shower show

August 10, 2012|By Mick Swasko | RedEye

Chicago has nightly views of lights in the sky. Unfortunately, this weekend, our own skyline pretty much guarantees we won't see much of an astronomical light show.

The peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower (pronounced per-SE-id) kicks off in earnest this weekend, with early Sunday and Monday morning being the best times to catch a glimpse of the annual event. In ideal conditions, according to astronomer Dr. Mark Hammergren of the Adler Planetarium, there will be a meteor a minute.

The sky show is caused by Earth passing through debris left over by comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits the sun every 133 years. When small bits of rock enter Earth's atmosphere, the mostly faint streaks in the sky are seen. The last time the comet passed close enough to Earth for it to be seen with the naked eye was in the 1990s, which won't happen again until 2126. The shower is named as such because it appears the meteors are coming from the constellation Perseus, which comes into view in Chicago after about 10 p.m. every night this week.

While Chicagoans do get lucky in some aspects – the moon won’t be present to light up the sky, and the forecast calls for mostly clear early-morning skies – the very fact that our sky is so bright makes it unlikely the showers will be able to be seen with the naked eye. But with patience and very good luck, the dedicated might have a shot at seeing something from their porch coming from the northeast.

"The longer you spend out there, the better chances you have of seeing a fireball," Hammergren said. Rarely, he said, larger chunks of rock fall creating a very bright meteor, enough to be seen even with a bright city nearby. During the Perseid, Chicagoans have a better shot than normal of catching a glimpse of one.

Hammergren recommends those looking for dark spots outside the city to check www.cleardarksky.com, an astrological forecast of sorts that gives an idea of where skies will be the darkest. In addition, he said passionate stargazers can head to Cantigny Park in Wheaton on Sunday from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. for a chance to spend time with planetarium volunteers who will have telescopes on hand.

For those who want their best shot at seeing some action that don’t want to hop in a car, the Illinois Science Council recommends heading to the water.  

“Although Chicagoland viewing is hampered by light pollution, our position west of the lake is fortunate,” the council says in a statement on their website. “Ideal viewing for those of us who can’t drive away from the city would be along the lakefront facing northeast (away from city lights and towards rising stars).”

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