"The night sky is the hunting ground of the mystic and the philosopher, the scientist and the theologian." -- Chet Raymo
Beginning this week, the remaining nights of August showcase three celestial events tailored to public viewing: the Perseid meteor shower, a spectacular dawn conjunction of Venus and Jupiter, and finally an evening waltz of Mars, Saturn and the waxing moon.
This Tuesday night through Wednesday morning, Earth will pass through the center of debris scattered by Comet Swift-Tuttle as it glides through inner solar system every 133 years.
As these sand-size particles slam into the first traces of the Earth's upper atmosphere, they vaporize to create meteors, popularly known as shooting stars, radiating from the direction of an inverted V-shaped constellation called Perseus located in our northeast sky. These meteors are named the Perseids.
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Because this meteor shower is so dependable and summer nights invite people outdoors, more of us watch the Perseids than any other yearly celestial event.
Though some bright meteors look like they are smashing into your neighbor's roof, most meteors disintegrate some 60 miles overhead.
Perseid meteors travel at a speed of 35 miles per second. That's why they whiz across the night's star fields like a raptor diving for prey.
Some Perseids can be sighted a few nights before and after the shower's peak display, though their numbers will be less.
This year, the almost full moon rises at 9:10 p.m. Tuesday. The resulting moonlight will illuminate the night sky and hid many faint meteors. However the brightest meteors will remain visible.
You can watch the Perseids from almost anywhere. Just get comfortable, turn your back to the bright moon and any other lights, and keep the caffeine flowing.
This month's second event is an exquisite and rare close pairing of the planets Venus and Jupiter, visible Aug. 18. With the exception of the moon and sun, no other celestial objects shine brighter than these planets.
This pairing will resemble two glistening diamonds tucked just above the eastern horizon inside the emerald, saffron, and scarlet colors of early dawn.
As if stitched together, both planets rise just north of due east at 4:30 a.m. Best observing begins 30 to 45 minutes later, before dawn scrubs the morning sky of color.
With each passing morning, notice how the brighter of the two planets (Venus) slips closer to the horizon while the dimmer planet (Jupiter) rises higher. These opposing motions take place because Venus is quickly retreating behind the summer sun to reappear in our autumn evening sky while Earth is catching up with Jupiter.
Venus is the brightest planet because of its closeness and thick blanket of acidic clouds reflecting most sunlight striking it. Jupiter shines bright because of its size -- 11 times wider than Earth.
Between Aug. 21 and 23, an increasingly slender crescent moon dips closer to Venus and Jupiter. During early dawn on Aug. 23, the moon forms a compact triangle with the downward pointing whisper-thin moon to the right and two white gleaming planets perched to the left.
Our third celestial event takes place one week later, on Sunday evening, Aug. 31. The moon will now have ventured from dawn to dusk.
Look to the southwest sky about 8:30 p.m. This is one hour after sunset. Notice a yellow "star" hanging just right of the waxing moon? That's Saturn. Saturn looks yellow because of ammonia gas laced throughout its atmosphere.
Then look one finger width below the moon. That ruddy "star" is Mars. It's red because of rusted iron in the planet's surface rocks and soil.
Enjoy these sights of late summer. Each is easily viewed using our unaided eyes. A pair of binoculars can increase viewing enjoyment.
-- Roy Gephart is a retired environmental scientist and an avid amateur astronomer.