Look to the sky for a show full of stars
I don’t know what’s on television tonight, but I do know this month is a prime time for stargazing.
As the world slips toward autumn, darkness arrives a few minutes earlier on successive nights. Additionally, temperatures still hover near their summertime norms. The combination creates long, comfortable evenings. So, pull up a chair or spread out a blanket. Let me tell you what you can expect.
The Perseid meteor shower will peak the night of August 12–13. Typically, the best time to look for meteors is between midnight and dawn. This year, moonlight may interfere with the peak, so try viewing between 10 p.m. and moonrise (a little after 1 a.m. on the August 13). Perseid meteors occur when the earth’s orbit annually traverses a path of tiny fragments left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle (named for Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle, who identified it in 1862). Because its stream of interplanetary debris is broad, you may see associated meteors on any clear, dark night between July 14 and August 24.
You won’t see Comet Swift-Tuttle this month. It last passed through the inner solar system in 1992 and won’t be back until 2126, but you may still be able to catch a glimpse of a different comet, NEOWISE (named for the telescope used in its discovery). For the past several weeks, it has been visible over the northwest horizon below the Big Dipper. Comet NEOWISE will climb higher and drift westward through the early weeks of August. It may dim. Comet brightness predictions are notoriously unreliable. If you can find a viewing spot away from lights where the trees don’t block your view, let your eyes adapt to the dark and then look for a fuzzy star. A pair of binoculars can help. Binoculars will also help you see the comet’s tail.
Now, turn around and look toward the southeast. Disregarding the moon (which will move day-by-day), the brightest object in the evening sky is the planet Jupiter. It will be unmistakable. Once you’ve located it, look for a dimmer, but still bright, star-like object to Jupiter’s left. That is the planet Saturn. If your view is obstructed by trees or buildings, wait until midnight. By then the planets will be closer to due south and higher in the sky. As the night progresses, the two planets will slide toward the southwestern horizon with Jupiter leading the way. During the coming months, the observed positions of Jupiter and Saturn will draw closer together. On December 21 at sunset, they will appear aligned, an occurrence called a conjunction. This year’s conjunction will be the closest for these two planets since 1623.
If you’ve still got your binoculars out, take a closer look at Jupiter and Saturn. Unlike stars that appear as points of light, Jupiter will look like a round basketball. You may see a line of tiny dots at its sides. Those are some of Jupiter’s moons. Saturn will look more like a football because, in binoculars, its famous ring system creates the illusion of an oval.
Two other planets will make appearances as they rise in the east. You can begin looking for Mars, which will look slightly reddish and a bit brighter than Saturn, around midnight. Venus, which will outshine even Jupiter, will begin its ascent a couple hours before the sun.
If the night is clear and dark, you may also see the Milky Way streaming up from the south and spilling in a cloud-like arc toward the northeast. Its faint glow comes from the combined light of distant stars in the bulging disk of our galaxy.
Scattered across the sky, you’ll see stars that make up constellations. If you’d like to try to identify some constellations, you can download a current Evening Sky Map from SkyMaps.com (be sure to retrieve the edition for the northern hemisphere). If you’d rather put your own imagination to work, see what pictures you can create by playing connect-the-dots with the stars.
I think you’ll find nature’s sky show to be better and more inspiring than anything that television has to offer. I promise there will be fewer commercials.
KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress. com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.