With a pair of planets in the evening and morning heavens, muted Perseid meteors and a fun full moon, these lazy days of summer feature a bustling night sky.
The drama opens Sunday night with Saturn and Mars flanking the young moon in the southwestern heavens. Reddish Mars (zero magnitude, visible from the city) hangs to the right, and the ringed Saturn (zero magnitude, visible from the city) loiters to the left.
Because the moon continually inches through the heavens, it will pass over Saturn — which will be seen in other parts of the globe — on Monday morning. You won’t see this from Washington, but you can catch it live online at Slooh.com. The online astronomy group dubbed this “The Moon ‘Photobombing’ Saturn from Australia.” See it at 7 a.m. Monday at live.slooh.com.
On Monday night in Washington, the moon starts to distance itself from Mars and Saturn. The red and ringed planets form a tight partnership by Aug. 27 and are within a few degrees of each other. The moon returns Aug. 31 to form another trio with Mars and Saturn.
In the middle of August, very low on the eastern horizon see Venus (-3.0 magnitude, very bright) ascend the morning sky. Jupiter (-1.0 magnitude, bright) begins to emerge in the same vicinity about 6 a.m. in morning twilight. On subsequent mornings, these planetary paramours appear to gravitate toward each other, but on Aug. 18, Venus and Jupiter conjunct. Like teen sweethearts holding hands, they remain close for several days until the lunar chaperone — the moon — breaks them apart on Aug. 23.
The moon becomes full Aug. 10, at 2:09 p.m. Eastern time, after it reaches perigee (the moon’s closest distance to Earth in this cycle) minutes earlier, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Astronomical Phenomenon 2014. It’s colloquially dubbed a “supermoon,” and it is the second of three big and bright full moons this summer.
The luminous moon will likely wash out most of this year’s normally robust Perseid meteor shower, which peaks Aug. 12-13, according to the International Meteor Organization. (The peak may happen after midnight on Aug. 13.) Bill Cooke, NASA meteor expert, says the Perseids usually flash a few more fireballs than other large showers.
On the nights leading up to the meteor shower (before the Aug. 10 full moon) and on the nights after the lunar influence fades, you may see a few stray meteors.
●Tuesday: “A Journey Among Galaxies: From Nearby to Far Away,” a talk by astronomer Sebastien Heinis at the University of Maryland Observatory in College Park. Telescope viewing afterward, weather permitting. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●Aug. 10: Sean McWilliams, assistant professor of astronomy at West Virginia University, hangs 10 to explain gravity waves, at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Room 163, Research Hall, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. www.novac.com.
●Aug. 20: “Astronomy from 40,000 Feet: Observing with NASA’s SOFIA,” a lecture about studying astronomy via aircraft by researcher Tracy Huard at the University of Maryland Observatory in College Park. Afterward, gaze at the heavens through telescopes. 9 p.m. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●Aug. 22-26: Registration space is filling fast for the Almost Heaven Star Party at the Mountain Institute in Spruce Knob, W.Va., hosted by the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Join fellow nature aficionados who enjoy stars, planets, birds and fresh air. www.ahsp.org.
●Aug. 23: Late summer’s dark heavens await as Sean O’Brien of the National Air and Space Museum and local astronomers guide you through stars and planets at Sky Meadows State Park near Paris, Va. Parking is $5. Arrive before dark. 7:30-10:30 p.m. Park phone: 540-592-3556. airandspace.si.edu.
●Aug. 23: Live from Rock Creek Park, it’s “Exploring the Sky,” hosted by the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers. Meet near the Nature Center in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 8:30 p.m. capitalastronomers.org.
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at email@example.com.