Shooting stars appear as soon as night falls, but only at the skimpy rate of a few per hour. Their intensity increases dramatically after midnight, and also with each passing night. This year other factors increase the wee-hour maximum: First, the meteors themselves reach peak intensity in the hours before dawn early Tuesday morning; and second, the moon sets around 1:30 a.m., darkening the sky so that their full number materializes.
So the later in the night, the more you'll see. Our annual meteor program at Mohonk Mountain House will feature a talk and meteor-and-summer-sky exploring at 9 p.m. that night, which is open to dinner guests. Later on, overnight guests can join me again for an insomniacs' convention when the shooting stars are peaking.
When you see a meteor the next few nights, it's always 60 to 90 miles away, and made of ice from comet Swift Tuttle. In addition, you'll see a few background meteors that are not part of the shower. These streak through our sky every clear night of the year: four an hour before midnight and over a dozen an hour before dawn, when you're on the part of Earth that faces forward in space so that your location collides with them head-on.
On any night, one meteor in 20 comes from the asteroid belt, and only these sturdy stones or metals can survive their trip through the atmosphere. The most famous celestial intruders that reach the ground have altered history, like the dinosaur-ending impact 65 million years ago or the even-worse Permian "great dying" 251 million years ago. Much more common are the smaller stones that damage homes almost yearly (usually after an expensive renovation).
A meteoroid can weigh a ton as it strikes our atmosphere; that was the estimated mass of the intruder that broke into dozens of fragments over a Chicago suburb in 2003. One crashed into a teenager's bedroom and broke a mirror. But nearly all the ones you'll see brake dramatically as air friction robs them of all their original speed and they disintegrate into dust. A rare non-shower specimen from the asteroid belt might survive intact if it weighed over a pound. These slow to just two or three miles per second at a height of ten miles, and no longer glow. Nonetheless, they still have enough kinetic energy to crash through a roof at 250 miles per hour and even go through one or two more floors below. Buildings are penetrated every few years in North America alone. Animals, standing outdoors, have also fared poorly - like a horse killed in Concord, Ohio in 1860 and a dog killed near Alexandria, Egypt in 1911.
Cars seem to attract meteors too. The most recent involved a Chevy Malibu parked in Peekskill whose trunk was destroyed by a 26-pounder on October 9, 1992; and then the terrifying experience of José Martín and his wife, driving from Madrid to Marbella, Spain two years later, when a three-pound meteor smashed through the windshield, breaking Martin's finger and bending back the steering wheel as it flew between his head and his wife's, to end up in the back seat.
Martín was the first person injured by a "shooting star" in 50 years - ever since a meteor came through Ann Hodges's roof in Alabama and bounced off a large console radio before bruising her leg. Just since 2000, meteors have entered five homes, including two in the United States. The freshly landed stones are usually barely warm after their slower flight through the cold stratosphere. And in case you wondered, the answer is yes: Most insurance policies cover the damage.