Annual Perseid meteor shower arriving

August 3, 2013

The annual Perseid meteor shower — peaking Aug. 11-12 — could produce pretty, poignant and plentiful points of light. Let’s hope for clear skies.

At its heaviest, about 90 meteors an hour are predicted, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Observer’s Handbook. But even if you diligently watch the sky, you’ll see only a fraction of peak meteors. Certainly, you’re bound to catch a few shooting stars on the evening of Aug. 11, but you’ll likely see more in the wee morning hours of Aug. 12, after the constellation Perseus ascends the eastern heavens.

To hunt for them, step away from the light. Find yourself a dark location away from lighted playgrounds, parking lots and streets. Armed with your coffee, amble your way into a lawn chair and look up. Although the meteors appear to emanate from the Perseus constellation, many meteors will leave trails through many parts of the sky.

On Aug. 11, a fattening new moon will be in the western sky in the evening, but it will set around 10:30 p.m., leaving behind dark heavens.

The Perseid meteors are not a one-night show. For several days before and after the Aug. 11-12 peak, you can likely catch these fun shooting stars.

How are falling stars born? On Earth’s annual run around the sun, our planet’s atmosphere strikes the dusty trail of comets gone by, and these dirty, leftover specks light up in our sky. In this case, the Perseid meteors are the debris from Swift-Tuttle — a comet discovered separately by Lewis Swift and Horace P. Tuttle in July 1862.

Beyond meteors, enjoy a few planets: Find the effervescent Venus and ringed Saturn in the west-southwestern sky at dusk. Of the two planets, Venus is brighter at negative 3.9 magnitude, and it appears very similar to an airliner with luminous landing lights. A very young, skinny crescent moon loiters with Venus on Aug. 9.

Saturn, in the southwest at dusk, hangs out at zero magnitude. You should be able to discern the planet in the urban and suburban light pollution of greater Washington. On the evening of Aug. 12, the growing moon will be to Saturn’s lower right. The next night, at first quarter, to Saturn’s lower left.

For early rising joggers and beachgoers, your morning eyes can feast on Jupiter, Mars and Mercury. At negative 2 magnitude, Jupiter is the easiest to find, rising around 3 a.m. and high in the eastern heavens before dawn. Not far behind, our neighboring planet — the reddish Mars (first magnitude) — follows Jupiter. It’s a little harder to see.

For the week’s subsequent mornings, you can catch Mercury before dawn. This fleeting planet follows Jupiter and Mars — and it brightens to negative first magnitude at week’s end, but it also appears to move closer to the sun.

Down to Earth events:

●Aug. 5: “The Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey, Gravitationally Lensed Universe,” a terrifically timely talk by astronomer Alice Olmstead, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. See the heavens through telescopes afterward. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.

●Aug. 10: “Exploring the Sky,” hosted by the National Capital Astronomers and the National Park Service. At Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center south of Military and Glover roads NW. 8:30 p.m. ­capitalastronomers.org.

●Aug. 10: An array of astronomers from the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club join Sean O’Brien of the National Air and Space Museum to telescopically guide you through the heavens. At Sky Meadows State Park near Paris, Va. A program for children precedes sky exploration. Parking $5. Arrive before dark. 7:30-10:30 p.m. Park phone: 540-592-3556. www.nasm.si.edu/events/
skywatching
.

●Aug. 11: Astronomer Jason Lee describes the sun’s coronal mass ejections. At the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Room 163, Research Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.

●Aug. 20: “Prepping for Comet ISON,” a lecture by astronomer Elizabeth Warner. She’ll describe what possibly may be the brightest comet in a generation. At the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Telescopic viewing afterward, weather permitting. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/
openhouse
.

Friedlander can be reached at postskywatch@gmail.com .

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