A night with the stars as outer space returns into the spotlight

IF you look up at the heavens tonight, you may just be lucky enough to witness a display of celestial fireworks.

These shooting stars are part of the Perseid meteor shower, which occurs each August and, with clear skies forecast, experts reckon it could be the most spectacular in years.

Every summer the Earth ploughs through a swarm of dusty particles shed by a passing comet. As the particles, each no bigger than a grain of sand, hit the atmosphere at 135,000mph they burn up, producing trails of light that shoot across the sky.

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The Perseid shower is expected to peak at around 11pm when observers in the countryside could see meteors streaking overhead at a rate of one

almost every half a second. Even in light-polluted cities, where only the brightest meteors will be visible, as many as 10 an hour may be seen.

Jo Burgon, of the National Trust, is urging people to escape the city lights and head for the hills for a spot of stargazing. "Seeing stars in their full splendour, shining bright in the sky above you, is one of the unofficial wonders of the natural world. The intrusive glow of

street lighting or a bright moon can be detrimental to a good meteor experience. But with a good weather forecast this year's Perseids display could be a cracker, and not one to be missed," he says.

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Such is the level of interest in this cosmic spectacle that Twitter Meteorwatch, supported by the Royal Astronomical Society and British Astronomical Association (BAA), has created an online "meteor map" showing where the most shooting stars are being seen around the world. The BAA has also launched a project to gather scientific data from observations made by amateur sky watchers.

It all sounds very exciting and harks back to the days when space exploration made headline news. During the 1960s, the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union reached fever pitch culminating with the moon landings. It captured people's imagination around the world and the sky, quite literally, had no limits.

But in the decades following those heady, pioneering days, space exploration lost much of its lustre, with sci-fi films taking us beyond the final frontier and leaving reality a dim speck on the horizon. Now, though, it appears to be back on people's agenda.

Only this week, Professor Stephen Hawking warned that the human race must colonise space within the next two centuries or it will become

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extinct. In an interview with website Big Think, the renowned

astrophysicist said he fears mankind is in great danger and its future "must be in space" if it is to survive.

Whatever the future holds, there seems little doubt that astronomy is enjoying a public renaissance at the moment. Dr Simon Goodwin, senior lecturer in Astronomy at Sheffield University, agrees. "Even in the scientific community there's been a lot of excitement in the past

decade with lots of new planets being discovered. There's a whole new area of science called astro-biology looking at how we can find life on other planets," he says.

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The prospect of finding life on another planet has long fascinated mankind and Dr Goodwin believes it may become a reality within our lifetime. "If there is something out there in our galaxy then within 15 to 20 years there's a very good chance we'll find it."

The images captured by the Hubble Telescope have helped reignite public interest in space exploration. "It's given people a picture they can look at and go 'Wow' and it gets people's imaginations going that there might be life out there."

Another reason for this resurgence is the fact that practically anyone can get involved. "Astronomy is perhaps the only science where you can make a serious contribution as an amateur. There's a lot of sky out there and amateurs are looking for supernovas with a pair of binoculars and with a relatively inexpensive telescope you can see all these stars, the rings of Saturn and Mars as a disc," Dr Goodwin says.

"Some people feel that space exploration is too expensive and ask why can't the money be spent building new hospitals. But the technology that's come out of this, such as micro-chips and Teflon, has paid for this many times over. It costs around $100m for a couple of new top-of-the- range jet fighters, which is the same amount it costs to pay for a mission to Mars."

And he, too, believes our future may well be among the stars and constellations. "I think Stephen Hawking is right and within 200 years we should have colonies in space."