Unfold a lawn chair, sit down, look up and search for shooting stars.
Take time away from the television reality shows and commune with the cosmos. Under dark and clear skies, you can find plenty of Perseid (pronounced PURR-see-id) meteors on the nights of Aug. 11-12. Although the hourly off-peak rate for meteors is expected to be about one a minute, a doggedly persistent sky-gazer would do well to see a dozen an hour.
For North American viewers, the official peak of the shower will be in the early afternoon of Aug. 12. That pesky sun washes out all those lovely meteors, but observers should find ample pre-peak and post-peak meteors on those two August nights. The waxing crescent moon will set before midnight, making the sky better for meteor hunting.
Meteors are sand-grain-size dust particles left by comets. As Earth passes through these dusty trails, these bits strike our atmosphere, burn and vaporize. That creates an impressive light show, and the bigger particles provide observers with the occasional, exciting fireball.
The Perseid meteors are so-named because those light streaks appear to originate from the constellation Perseus, in the northwestern sky.
Internet Hoax: If you recently received an e-mail suggesting that Mars will be at its closest point to Earth in August, don't believe it. Neighboring planet Mars, while visible now, was exceptionally close to Earth in August 2003.
Despite the hoax, Mars provides an interesting view. The Red Planet rises about midnight now and will be high in the eastern heavens about 2 a.m. As August progresses, Mars rises earlier and goes from a zero-magnitude (bright) object to a negative first magnitude (brighter) object -- making the planet easy to spot in the Aries constellation.
Venus and Jupiter, in the western sky at dusk, are moving closer together. The effervescent Venus (negative third magnitude, very bright) skims the western horizon and Jupiter (negative first magnitude, bright) is higher in the sky. In the twilight, Jupiter seems to pop out of the dark blue like a strong, distant beacon. In August's last days, the two planets will meet and dance the month away.
Tomorrow -- How far is Earth from the stars? Astronomer Matt Bobrowsky explains "How Big, How Far?" at the Space Science Telescope Institute's auditorium on the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore; 8 p.m. For information: 410-338-4700; www.hubblesite.org/about_us/public-talks.shtml.
Wednesday -- Curator David DeVorkin answers "What Does a Bottle of Cointreau and a Have-a-Heart Pigeon Trap Have to Do With the Birth of the Universe?" Milestones of Flight Gallery, National Air and Space Museum; noon. 202-633-1000; www.nasm.si.edu.
Thursday -- Paul Ceruzzi, curator, will discuss the Saturn V instrument unit at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles International Airport; noon. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 202-633-1000; www.nasm.si.edu.
Friday -- Astronomer Nehanda Tankasala lectures on Apollo-era astronauts at the astronomy open house, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. Spy the heavens through a telescope, weather permitting; 9 p.m. 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
Aug. 10 -- Cathleen Lewis, curator, discusses "Space Tourism: Dennis Tito's SK-2 Sokol Spacesuit," Milestones of Flight Gallery, National Air and Space Museum; noon. 202-633-1000; www.nasm.si.edu.
Aug. 13 -- Nebulae and stars abound as astronomer Sean O'Brien of the National Air and Space Museum guides a tour of the heavens at Sky Meadows State Park, near Paris, Va.; 8 to 11 p.m. Parking, $4. 540-592-3556; www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/skymeado.htm.
Aug. 17 -- A short talk by curator Bob Craddock, titled "Magnificent Desolation: Where We Landed on the Moon and Why?" Milestones of Flight Gallery, National Air and Space Museum; noon. 202-633-1000; www.nasm.si.edu.
Aug. 20 -- Astronomy open house, University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. After a short lecture, see the sky through a telescope, weather permitting; 9 p.m. 301-405-6555; www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
Aug. 24 -- Allan A. Needell, curator, talks about spacesuits in the Apollo program. Milestones of Flight Gallery, National Air and Space Museum; noon. (202) 633-1000; www.nasm.si.edu.
Aug. 27 -- See the sky from the city: The National Capital Astronomers and the National Park Service host "Exploring the Sky" at Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW; 8:30 p.m. 202-895-6070; capitalastronomers.org.
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at email@example.com