One of the more prolific meteor showers, the Perseids, will occur this year under almost ideal observing conditions. The new crescent Moon will not be a factor because it will be only 8% illuminated and set not long after sunset.
The Perseids occur when the Earth passes through the debris trails left by the passages of comet Swift-Tuttle. This shower is extended, beginning in mid-July and lasting until early September. However, the main event occurs every year when the Earth crosses the densest cometary trail in mid-August.
This year, given favorable viewing conditions (i.e., no clouds), the fun will begin on the evening of Aug. 12, with the peak occurring early in the morning on Aug. 13. Start by looking to the northeast on the evening of Aug. 12, toward the constellation Perseus which will be just below the famous “W” of Cassiopeia.
Because comet Swift-Tuttle tends to leave fairly large chunks of “comet stuff” in its trail, the Perseids often produce fairly bright meteors. This year, the peak of the shower is predicted to produce as many as 90 meteors per hour.
Saturn has made its way westward in the night sky and is visible to us in the southeast in the evening. On Aug. 27, it will reach opposition from the Sun rising above the southeastern horizon at sunset and being visible all night long. By contrast, Jupiter is still an early morning object rising in the southeast around 2 a.m.
As Mars continues its descent toward the western horizon, we’ll be able to enjoy one last Mars encounter as it joins Mercury just above the western horizon. From Aug. 10-16, the two small planets will be less than 5 degrees apart and only a few degrees above the western horizon. Binoculars will probably be necessary to view this pairing of dimly lit planets. Venus also continues its slow march towards the western horizon, still shining brilliantly in the early evening sky.
The moon will be full on Aug. 1, last quarter on Aug. 8, new on Aug. 16, first quarter on Aug. 24, and full again on Aug. 31. It’s a blue moon month! Looking to the southwest on the morning of Aug. 3, about 45 minutes before sunrise, the waning gibbous moon will be below and slightly to the left of Saturn. Looking to the southeast on the morning of Aug. 8, about an hour before sunrise, the last quarter moon will be just above and to the left of Jupiter.
Looking east-southeast on Aug. 30, about 1 hour after sunset, the nearly full moon will be just below and to the left of Saturn.
There will not be a first Saturday star party at the Etscorn Campus Observatory this month.