Nature will turn on the cosmic spigot in mid-August -- in the form of the Perseid meteors.
These shooting stars dash across the heaven, peaking the night of Aug. 11-12. Perseid meteors -- appearing to emanate from the constellation Perseus -- always rouse the interest of late-summer sky gazers. "These showers are consistent and consistently good," said Geoff Chester of the U.S. Naval Observatory. They are generally bright and they leave behind a trail, he said.
Officially, the Perseid meteor shower peaks at 11 a.m. Universal Time (formerly Greenwich Mean Time) Aug. 12, or about 7 a.m. in Washington.
This means the best time to watch the Perseids here will be between midnight and dawn Aug. 12. There are usually many meteors before and after the official peak.
Bill Cooke, an astronomer at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, tracks meteors to protect spacecraft. He said that because the moon will be last-quarter in mid-August, it will be dark enough to see more meteors. Cooke points to a possible pre-peak surge of activity, due to a "filament," or ribbon of dust -- left behind by the comet -- that Earth will pass through. Sky gazers in Europe and Asia probably will see the extra peak.
The maximum number of meteors, called the zenith hourly rate, is expected to be about 90, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Even in the ruddy summer skies above Washington, conscientious sky gazers should be able to spot 10 shooting stars an hour. The early meteors will appear in all parts of the sky. To find them, astronomers suggest simply looking up.
Meteor showers occur when the Earth passes through the dusty trails comets leave behind. When the Earth goes through a comet trail, particles left behind by comets strike the upper atmosphere and excite ions, creating a trail bright enough to see.
The Perseid meteors come from Comet Swift-Tuttle, discovered by astronomers Lewis Swift and Horace Tuttle in 1862. Tuttle discovered the comet from the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington.
Venus, ever the sultry beauty, is a perfect planet for pre-dawn beach walkers. This negative fourth magnitude (very bright) object is found in the east before sunrise. It is the brightest object between the constellations Taurus and Orion. By the middle of August, Venus moves into the constellation Gemini.
Slowly, throughout the month, Saturn emerges into the eastern morning sky, rising a little higher each day. It will be easier to find late in the month. The large, gaseous, ringed planet is a zero magnitude (bright) object. Venus and Saturn conjunct (meet) Sept. 1.
If you are looking for Mars and Jupiter this month, forget about it.
Neither planet presents a good view.
* Aug. 4 -- Priscilla Strain of the National Air and Space Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies provides an update on "Spirit and Opportunity: The Mars Exploration Rovers," at the National Air and Space Museum. Meet at the seal. Noon. Information, 202-357-2700; www.nasm.si.edu.
* Aug. 5 -- Astronomer Marc Pound discusses "Take the Astronomy Challenge!" at an open house at the University of Maryland, College Park, observatory. After the talk, view the sky through a telescope, weather permitting. 9 p.m. Information, 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
* Aug. 7 -- See the universe from the city at "Exploring the Sky," presented by the National Park Service and National Capital Astronomers. Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 9 p.m. 202-895-6070; capitalastronomers.org.
* Aug. 8 -- Astronomer Roger M. Firestone talks about celestial mechanics at the meeting of the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. Enterprise Hall, Room 80, George Mason University, Fairfax. 7 p.m. Information and parking instructions, www.novac.com.
* Aug. 11 -- Astronomers and sky gazers from the Washington area will gather to watch the Perseid meteors at Blackwater Falls State Park in Davis, W.Va., where the panhandles of Maryland and West Virginia meet. 7:30 p.m. Park information, 304-259-5216; www.blackwaterfalls.com.
* Aug. 14 -- Enjoy the cosmos from a dark-sky location with astronomer Sean O'Brien of the National Air and Space Museum at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va. 7:15 (set-up) to 11 p.m. $4 parking fee. Information, 540-592-3556; www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/skymeado.htm.
* Aug. 18 -- Amanda Young, space historian, explains "Spacesuit Evolution From John Glenn to Apollo 15" at the National Air and Space Museum. Meet at the seal. Noon. Information, 202-357-2700; www.nasm.si.edu.
* Aug. 25 -- Thomas Watters of the National Air and Space Museum's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies talks about the subsurface exploration of Mars at the National Air and Space Museum. Meet at the seal. Noon. Information, 202-357-2700; www.nasm.si.edu.
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.