Showers are forecast starting Sunday night, but they won't appear if the skies are cloudy.

What's coming is the Perseid meteor shower, as bits of comet dust hit Earth's atmosphere and flame out at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, sending a rush of meteors, or shooting stars, streaking across the night sky.

NASA dubbed the Perseids the "fireball champion" because they produce more superbright meteors than any of the other top nine showers.

Peak viewing time in Sonoma County — with about 60 Perseid meteors per hour — should be in the predawn hours of Monday morning, said Ed Megill, director of the Santa Rosa Junior College Planetarium.

A small, new moon will set about 10:30 p.m. Sunday, setting the stage — if skies are clear — for an astronomical extravaganza.

However, the peak time and rate of meteor showers is only a "good guess," Megill said, noting the Perseids may appear any time after dark Sunday through early Tuesday morning.

Get up high and away from city lights for best viewing. Look to the northern half of the sky, toward the constellation Perseus for the star-savvy, from which the meteors appear to emerge.

In reality, the Perseids are bits of debris — most the size of sand grains; a few as big as peas or marbles — left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, which makes a 130-year orbit around the sun.

Every summer Earth passes through the comet's debris stream, causing the tiny meteoroids to hit our atmosphere at 133,000 miles per hour, transforming them into flaming meteors.

Some meteors splatter, creating a brighter flash called a fireball.

The Perseids are spectacular because Swift-Tuttle is a lunker of a comet at six miles wide, about the size of the object that wiped out the dinosaurs, according to the website.

It was once thought to pose a threat to Earth, but is now slated for a "cosmic near miss" of a million miles in 3044.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or