Star Dust: Perseid meteor shower streaks through this week | SierraSun.com

Star Dust: Perseid meteor shower streaks through this week

Keoki Flagg 2009Astronomer and big telescopes at the Perseid Meteor Shower Campout at Squaw Valley's High Camp.
©Keoki Flagg 2009 |

Associated Press/ROGER PTAK andamp;#8212; Perseid Meteors Reach Their Peak Venus, Saturn and Mars perform an interesting dance low in the west this August. Seen at dusk,Venus will pass the other two planets during the first three weeks of the month. Late in the month, bright Jupiter will be rising before the sky is completely dark. The Perseid meteor shower will have its peak in a sky free of moonlight.Mars and Saturn, just left of west, will be separated by the width of one finger (with your arm straight out) Aug. 1. We will see Mars to the lower left of brighter Saturn, and brilliant Venus will hard to miss to their lower right. The viewing window will begin about 12:35 p.m. and will last a half hour or so. For all these planet events, you will need a clear view to the lower western sky.Venus, Saturn and Mars will fit within a circle just half a hand across at dusk Aug. 7, and they should be visible starting around 12:30 a.m. The following evening, Venus will pass closest to Saturn, just a wide finger to its lower left.The Perseid meteors are caused by debris left behind by a comet, named Swift-Tuttle, which has been orbiting the Sun for many centuries. As the Earth moves through this stream of small particles, the ones striking our atmosphere light up, making visible, but short-lived, streaks in the sky.This year we should be able to see the largest number of these meteors on the nights of the Aug. 11, 12 and 13. The best viewing will be between 2 a.m. and when the morning sky begins to brighten. Since there will be no interfering moonlight during these times, this promises to be a good year for the Perseids.These times for watching the meteor shower are blessed with dark skies because the Moon is new Aug. 9. For four or five days before and after this, moonlight will not be a hindrance in the late evening. If you are out between 1:30 a.m. and midnight, look for the Milky Way which stretches across the sky from south to north, passing high in the east or even overhead.With good timing, it should be possible to see a pretty crescent Moon in the evening twilight of the Aug. 12. Locate Venus in the western sky about 12:10 a.m., and you should see the very slender crescent below it.It will be much easier to observe a crescent Moon to the left of Venus on the Aug. 13. The viewing window will begin about 12:15 a.m. and last a half hour or so. By 11:30 p.m., Mars should be visible above and left of Venus.The Moon will be at first quarter phase Aug. 16, and if clouds are not in the way, it should be easy to see due south and rather low about 10:30 p.m. If you look a few hours later, the constellation Scorpius will be visible to the left of the Moon.The Moon will have shifted over into the heart of Scorpius in the evening of Aug. 17. Look for it right of south about 12:30 a.m., when Antares, the orange eye of the Scorpion, will be closely below it.Venus and Mars will be just one finger apart from Aug. 16-20. Venus will be more than 100 times as bright as Mars, so we should use Venus as a guide. The good viewing window will begin about 12:15 a.m. and last roughly 20 minutes.Mars will be to the upper left of Venus Aug. 16. Then it will be mostly above Venus Aug. 17 and 18. Finally, we will see it to the upper right of Venus Aug. 20.Jupiter will be just a half hand below the Moon as they rise Aug. 26. They should be high enough for easy viewing by 1:30 a.m. Jupiter will be a hand to the right of the Moon on their rise the following evening.Earthandamp;#8217;s orbit will take us closest to Jupiter in a few weeks, so it is already close to its peak brightness. A telescopic view of Jupiter should be quite interesting now. However, we will have to wait until close to midnight for Jupiter to get high enough for a good image.Recall that the curve of the handle of the Big Dipper, which is high in the northwest as the sky becomes dark, leads us to the bright star Arcturus. Following along that same curve brings us to Spica, the brightest star of Virgo.Venus will be passing Spica Aug. 31, and we will see the star closely above the planet. Find them left of west about midnight. Binoculars may be helpful for seeing Spica.Looking near the southern horizon around 1:30 a.m., we can see the Teapot of Sagittarius close to due south, with Scorpius to its right. A spot just left of the Teapot marks the direction in which lies the center of our Galaxy. The glowing band we call the Milky Way is our view of the Galaxy as seen from the inside.Warm August evenings often invite us to get outside and admire the wonders of the night sky. You can think of the story of streaks of light being made by pieces of Swift-Tuttle as the tale of a comet.