Wow! A major annual meteor shower sandwiched between the oppositions of two major planets. If you enjoy skywatching, this is definitely the month to get outside on August evenings. And a telescope isn’t needed—just a clear night (and a lawn chair for the meteor shower).
The term “opposition” when used talking about planets means that they are on the opposite side of the sky from the Sun and rise in the east as it sets in the west. On August 2nd, the beautiful ringed planet Saturn makes its appearance over the eastern horizon at sunset as a bright yellow “star.” A couple weeks later, the giant planet Jupiter does the same on the 19th outshining everything else in the sky except the Moon itself. As mentioned in past columns, realize in both cases that these planets aren’t actually rising—it’s the Earth spinning eastward and dropping the horizon to meet them!
While these events can be enjoyed with just your eyes alone, if you have a pair of binoculars magnifying 7x or 10x take a look at each of these worlds. They will show Saturn as an egg-shaped blob—the blended light of its ball and ring system. In Jupiter’s case, these glasses will show several of its four bright moons depending on where they are in their orbits about the planet. And if you are fortunate enough to own a telescope, magnifications of just 25x will show Saturn’s majestic ring system giving it the appearance of some exquisite piece of cosmic jewelry, and Jupiter’s moons doing their never-ending dance around its giant globe.
On the evening of August 12th into the morning hours of the 13th, the year’s best-known meteor shower occurs. This is the Perseids, which can produce more than 100 “shooting stars” an hour at its peak given a clear dark sky. It often happens that the Moon spoils this display by lighting up the sky and reducing the number of meteors seen—especially around the time of Full Moon. But this year it will be in the crescent phase after sunset and leave a darkened sky after it sets later in the evening.
This is basically a naked-eye event, best-seen reclining on a lawn chair or heavy blanket and facing in the direction of the shower radiant while concentrating on the sky overhead. The meteors stream from the constellation Perseus (thus their name). Set your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator for about 9 p.m. to see it rising just over the northeastern horizon. As the evening progresses, you will see more and more meteors as Perseus rises higher into the sky. And while telescopes are of little use in following these swiftly-moving shafts of light, binoculars are useful in looking at the dust trails often left behind the brighter ones. And pointing them at the radiant itself from time-to-time, you may be lucky enough to see a meteor coming directly towards you as a rapidly brightening point of light!
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.