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Meteor shower to light up weekend sky

<p>European Southern Observatory</p><p>The Perseids meteor shower is seen in August 2010 in the skies above the Paranal Observatory in Chile.</p>


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Shooting stars will streak across the night sky late Sunday and early Monday morning, providing plenty of “ooh” and “aah” moments but also an opportunity for observatories on Mauna Kea to focus their telescopes.

The Perseid meteor shower occurs each year in August as the Earth plows through debris left by Comet Swift-Tuttle.

The best viewing will be after midnight Sunday, said Peter Michaud, spokesman for the Gemini Observatory.

The moon will set by midnight, providing excellent conditions for viewing, he said. That is, assuming there’s little cloud cover.

The shower also provides the Gemini Observatory, as well as others on the mountain, with a unique opportunity.

As the meteors burn up, they leave behind gases high up in the atmosphere.

By shooting lasers into the night sky, the observatories can use the gas, particularly sodium, to create artificial stars.

These “guide stars” are then used to adjust their adaptive optics systems.

“Believe it or not, there aren’t enough stars in the sky for astronomers,” said Chad Trujillo, who heads Gemini’s AO program, in a press release.

Gemini will use five lasers to create an artificial constellation on the night sky.

The lasers will not be viewable away from the observatory, Michaud said.

“You have to be right up to the telescope to see it,” he said.

The AO systems allow large telescopes to see with better clarity. They are a must for the planned Thirty Meter Telescope and other state-of-the-art observatories, Michaud said.

As telescopes get larger, Trujillo said in the press release, “they must look through a wider column of air. The wider the column of air, the more turbulence in the air will distort the observed light. Using laser guide stars gives us a reference so we can correct for that turbulence and see things with amazing clarity from the ground.”

The meteor shower tends to radiate from the Perseid constellation, but don’t worry about locating those stars to find the shower, Michaud said.

“If you look straight up, you will see them,” he said.

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