For any armchair astronomer within grasp of a cloudless sky, August evolves into a fine month of visible events. There will be a major planetary conjunction, an occultation, a comet visible to the unaided eye, and enough meteors to fill the nights of many shooting-star wishers.
The action begins before breakfast, some time around the comforting thump of a freshly delivered morning newspaper. Skimming the east-northeastern horizon, Venus and Jupiter now begin their minuet. You will not be able to miss these two bright planets in the pre-dawn sky, unless, of course, it clouds over for the next month.
Venus, the more brilliant of the two planets, reaches nearly a negative 4.0 magnitude (very bright), while Jupiter weighs in at a less luminous negative 1.8 magnitude.
Each morning for the next two weeks, these planets get closer and closer and finally smooch on the weekend of Aug. 11-13. This alignment is called a conjunction and there hasn't been one between these two gems since 1949 -- and they won't meet again for 92 years.
Ever so slightly, Jupiter appears to stay in the same position among the stars because it is so far out. It takes Jupiter about 12 years to go around the sun, while Earth takes only 365.25 days. As Jupiter moves slowly, Venus hauls around the sun, leaving a swift impression around the solar system.
Although Venus and Jupiter eventually part ways, we will still be treated to an occultation -- an eclipse of a star, group of stars or a planet. On the morning of Aug. 18, a scant few days beyond the conjunction, a skinny moon occults Jupiter. The best vantage point will be west of the Mississippi River, but occult followers along the Atlantic Coast can at least view the preparation.
If the conjunction and an occultation prove too exciting, cool off with a meteor shower. The annual Perseid meteors show up again, as usual, on Aug. 12. The moon will hinder viewing because of its luminosity that weekend. But don't despair, the advantage of a major meteor shower is its trickle-down effect. In other words, you can catch stray Perseids for several days on either side of its Aug. 12 peak.
The Perseids are the dust left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. As Earth goes around the sun it passes through the dusty trail left by Swift-Tuttle every year in mid-August. The Perseids appear to originate from the constellation Perseus. When these minute cosmic discards hit the atmosphere they burn bright and delight observers.
This year the meteors usher in a new comet for a limited appearance. Comet Levy will not be back again so enjoy its visibility.
Comets are fickle and usually prove the skeptics right. Cross your fingers: Comet Levy may finally be an exception.
"It's living up to expectations," said Geoff Chester, of the Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum. "Levy has a very condensed central region and a large outer coma."
Passing within 39 million miles of Earth on Aug. 25, Comet Levy will have brightened considerably and should look like a fuzzy, dim star to the left of Sagittarius's teapot in the southern evening sky.
The International Astronomical Union, based in Cambridge, Mass., calculates Comet Levy's brightest moment to be plus 3.5 magnitude by the end of the month. That's dim, but bright enough to see in a dark sky -- as always, away from the excessive glare of city lights.
The late summer sky also features two old friends: Saturn and Mars. Saturn rises around dusk, much like Comet Levy near the Sagittarian teapot. Just slightly above zero magnitude in brightness, Saturn shows off those splendid rings to fortunate souls peeping through a telescope.
Another satellite of Saturn was discovered last month by NASA astronomers. Estimated to be about six miles wide, the object was found as astronomers sifted through the mountains of information captured by Voyager.
Mars prepares for an autumn fashion show. Rivaling the presentation of two years ago, Mars drops below zero magnitude, increasing in brightness as the red planet gains on Earth. Later this fall, Mars will be the planet to watch. Right now it rises in the east, just as the late-night TV talk shows kick into gear.
Down to Earth Events Saturday -- James Sharp, Einstein Planetarium director, explains how ancient mariners used the stars to navigate around the globe in "Navigating the Skies." 9:30 a.m. Free. Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum.