Darting through the heavens on the night of Aug. 12-13, the Perseid meteors may capture your attention. This is one of the strongest showers of the year, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
The group predicts a zenithal hourly rate of about 90 shooting stars around the peak.
Skygazers stand a good chance, barring clouds, of catching these fiery pebbles zipping across the late-night sky because the shower’s peak occurs after the young, crescent new moon sets, which means the moon will not impede the meteoric show.
How do you watch them? Just keep looking up, and you’ll probably catch more after the midnight hour. You won’t find all 90 in each hour, but with persistence, you can probably detect five to 10.
Meteors are nothing but dusty remnants left over from comets roaming around our solar neighborhood. Dirty snowballs though they are, comets leave dirt and vapor behind when they are warmed by the sun. Earth runs into the leftover trail as we orbit the sun, and when our atmosphere strikes that cosmic path, the dust burns in it — and we’re treated to a light show.
In the case of August’s Perseid meteors, the culprit comet is Swift-Tuttle (109P). Astronomer Horace P. Tuttle was given credit for discovering the comet July 19, 1862, from the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. Lewis Swift concurrently found the comet from near Binghamton, N.Y.
During the Civil War, Tuttle joined the U.S. Army and after the war joined the Naval Observatory as an astronomer. He died in Washington in 1923 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery, near Seven Corners in Falls Church.
After the sun sets, look to the southwestern sky to find the gaseous Jupiter, in the constellation Libra, hanging out at -2 magnitude (bright). It sets near midnight now and sets around 10:40 late in August, according to the Naval Observatory.
Nearby Venus lingers closer to the horizon in the western sky now. The dazzling planet hangs at about -4.4 and -4.5 magnitude (very bright) in August, setting around 10 p.m. now. In mid-August, enjoy the waxing sliver of a crescent moon glide by Venus from Aug. 12 through 15.
Saturn loiters in the south-southeast in the evening as the planet’s tilting rings give Earth a big nod. The large planet is found at zero magnitude (bright). Observe the fattening waxing moon slide by Saturn on Aug. 20-21. The ringed planet sets in the wee morning hours.
Catch our reddish neighbor Mars in the southeastern sky now after sunset. Fresh after reaching opposition July 27 and being relatively close in late July, it dims noticeably through August. Mars is bright at -2.8 magnitude now, but this planet will be at -2.2 magnitude (still bright) Aug. 30, according to the Naval Observatory. The planet sets just before sunrise in the early part of August, and it sets around 3:45 a.m. toward month’s end.
To catch the partial solar eclipse Aug. 11, you should find yourself on the northern end of the world. The northernmost parts of North America, Greenland, northern Europe and Asia can catch the partiality — which is hard to appreciate without special eclipse glasses. Always protect your eyes.
●Aug. 5 — “Magnetic Fields in the Milky Way,” a talk by research scientist Tess Jaffe, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 9 p.m. Enjoy the night’s heavenly objects afterward, weather permitting. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
●Aug. 11 — Treasure Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and perhaps a few early Perseid meteors at “Exploring the Sky,” hosted by the National Park Service and the National Capital Astronomers, at Rock Creek Park, near the Nature Center, in the field south of Military and Glover roads NW. 8:30 p.m. nps.gov/rocr/planyourvisit/expsky.htm.
●Aug. 12 — You’ve glimpsed the night sky, but you want to know more. “Astronomy 101” — a talk by astronomer Pete Johnson could inspire enthusiasm for the heavens at the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club’s regular meeting, 163 Research Hall, George Mason University. 7 p.m. novac.com.
●Aug. 20 — “Cool Science From Near the Sun,” a talk by research scientist Ian Richardson, at the University of Maryland Observatory, College Park. 9 p.m. Soak up the late summer cosmic wonders through telescopes afterward, weather permitting. www.astro.umd.edu/openhouse.
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at