Starwatch: It's a great year to catch the Perseids
This weekend and early Monday morning is the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower as the Earth cruises around the sun at 67,000 mph and runs into a dust debris trail left behind by comet Swift Tuttle, which last visited our part of the solar system in 1992.
Comets are basically dirty snowballs that turn into litterbugs as they partially melt and leave behind trails of dust and pebble-sized debris. When the Earth runs into these trails, some of the debris gets gravitationally sucked into our atmosphere and gets incinerated, and we get a meteor shower.
You can be on the watch for meteors all night long if you want, but the best part of the show will be from 1 a.m. until sunrise.
What’s really great about the Perseids this year is that there’s virtually no moonlight, leaving us with a good, dark sky, especially in the countryside, where you may see over 70 meteors an hour!
It’s called the Perseids because the meteors seem to emanate from the general direction of the constellation Perseus the Hero, which is in the high northeast sky in the predawn hours. It’s a mistake just to restrict your view to that direction, though. The meteors will be all over the sky with their "tails" pointing back in the general direction of the constellation Perseus. The best way to watch the Perseids is to lie back on a blanket on the ground or a reclining lawn chair and roll your eyes all around the sky, slightly favoring the high northeastern sky.
During your Perseid meteor watch this year we have the bonus of enjoying the bright planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. As you’ve probably already heard Mars is the brightest object in the sky right now, and the closest it’s been to Earth in 15 years!
In the vicinity of those three planets are some wonderful summer constellations. One of the all-time classics is Sagittarius, portrayed by the early Greeks as a Centaur aiming an arrow. Forget about all that! Sagittarius looks just like a teapot! Anybody I’ve ever shown this constellation to says the same thing.
It’s easy to see as most of the stars are nearly as bright as those in the Big Dipper. There are three stars on the right side that form the spout, four stars on the left side that outline the handle, and one star that marks the top of the teapot. It looks as if the teapot is pouring hot celestial tea on the stinger tail of Scorpius, a neighboring constellation to the west.
As darkness sets in, look for the little teapot just barely above the south-southeast horizon. This summer the wandering bright planet Saturn is shining just above Sagittarius, while the incredibly bright planet Mars is just to the left of the teapot, and the bright shiner Jupiter is to the far right, actually just to the right of Scorpius the Scorpion. It’s crowded in that part of the sky this summer!
If you’re lucky enough to be stargazing and watching for the Perseid meteors in the countryside you’ll see a starry stream billowing out from the Sagittarius teapot. This is the famous Milky Way Band, the thickest part of our home galaxy. After midnight, you’ll see a ribbon of ghostly white light stretching across the top of the celestial dome from Sagittarius, on the southwest horizon, to the bright constellation Cassiopeia, just above the northeast horizon. Cassiopeia will resemble a sideways W (or M).
Catch an afternoon nap and enjoy the night out with the Perseids and everything else the sky is offering this summer!
CELESTIAL HUGGING THIS WEEK: Later next week on Thursday and Friday the new crescent moon will be close and personal with Jupiter in the early evening southwestern sky.