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The greatest meteor shower of 1994 will rain "shooting stars" later this week, with the best views in the pre-dawn hours Friday morning and then Friday night, astronomers predict.

The Perseid meteor shower was especially brilliant last year because of the approach the previous year of Comet Swift-Tuttle, which supplies the bits of cosmic debris that form meteors. The particles flame brightly when they enter the atmosphere and burn up.Some experts are predicting this year may be a particularly good one.

The Salt Lake Astronomical Society and Hansen Planetarium are sponsoring a "meteor watch" on Friday night. Members of the public are welcome to join them at Little Mountain, which can be reached by driving east along Emigration Canyon. After 800 South crosses Foothill Boulevard, it's about eight miles.

Patrick Wiggins, spokesman for Hansen Planetarium, said one good way to find the site is to drive east past Hogle Zoo to the highest altitude the road reaches. If someone starts heading downhill, he said, that's past the gathering.

"Last year, the best part of the shower was in the morning," Wiggins said. At that time, 250 meteors were seen by Salt Lake residents. This year, the best time may be Friday morning before dawn, from about 3 to 5 a.m.

"The people who watched before midnight saw very, very few," he noted. "That's not to say that they wouldn't see any in the evening" this year.

When Wiggins was in southern Utah conducting a star show last weekend, he saw many Perseid meteors, which appear to originate in the constellation Perseus, in the northern part of the sky. Several had long trains of material that glowed brightly for a moment.

"The fact that we've been seeing them for the better part of two months already tends to tell me that there may be increased activity" this year.

"It's really hard to say. But this is the first time that I could remember that I was seeing Perseids - and big and bright ones, numerous ones - this far ahead."

Even though the heavens apparently will rain shooting stars, nobody needs to worry. Each blazing particle is about the size of a grain of sand. Since friction with the atmosphere causes the bits to burn up between 90 and 110 miles above Earth, even when it is directly overhead the display will be nearly as far away as Salt Lake City is distant from Wendover, Wiggins said.

For more information call the planetarium's Starline, 532-STAR.