I always enjoy writing about the annual Perseid (PURR-see-ID) meteor shower.
It’s one of the most reliable and relatively prolific meteor showers of them all. This year is no exception.
In fact, astronomers are predicting the peak at 7 p.m. Mountain Time Aug. 12. That will be a bit too early as the sun won’t set until 7:55 p.m. and these little streaks of light won’t be visible until at least 9 p.m. No matter, as I think the peak will still be in progress later in the night, and the moon’s glare will not interfere.
Here’s what to do and how best to see the Perseids:
1) Dress for cold weather. It cools off very fast in the high country.
2) Find an open field away from outside lights.
3) Bring a blanket and pillow or a lay-flat lounge chair.
4) Lie down with your feet facing northeast and relax while you scan the night sky. Meteors will show up everywhere, but their tracks can be traced back to one point in the sky called, “the radiant” in the constellation Perseus The Hero. (See star chart)
My best guess is you’ll see the most meteors from 10:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. the next morning. If you get tired of waiting for meteors, bring a pair of binoculars (10 X 50 are the best) that you can use to scan the night sky and the summer Milky Way. From northwest to southeast you’ll see planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. There’s also our sister galaxy (The Great Andromeda Galaxy) to explore to the right of the zig-zag “W” shaped constellation Cassiopeia. It’s a dim naked-eye object best viewed through binoculars because it’s so large.
Saturn at Opposition
The outer planets in our solar system orbit the sun at a slower speed than Earth does. When we pass by one of them, we are exactly in between the sun and that outer planet. This is known as “opposition” (the planet is on the opposite side of the Earth with respect to the sun).
Astronomers like oppositions because the target planet is closest to us, is visible all night and is the brightest we can see it. Saturn is the planet most people want to see because of its unique large and beautiful rings. This year’s opposition occurred in late June when nights were relatively warm.
The only problem with this year’s opposition was the nearly full moon situated almost right next to Saturn. That made it difficult to see the gas giant because the moon is 39 times brighter.
Saturn will shine almost as brightly this week and be the same angular size through July 27. If you have even a small backyard telescope, you can also see the beautiful rings and as many as five of Saturn’s brightest moons. Maybe you’ll also see the dark Cassini division located between the rings if Earth’s atmosphere is stable enough to minimize distortion from turbulence.
You can find Saturn using only your eyes. It’ll be the bright light caramel-colored “star” above the “teapot” pattern of the constellation Sagittarius.
Saturn is drifting through the thick star fields of the Milky Way, so you may have difficulty telling its moons apart from the numerous background stars. Astronomy apps are available for your smart phone that you can use to locate Saturn’s moons real time.
Most of them have a feature that matches the orientation of the moons with your telescope’s optical light path. If you have sharp eyesight or are a young person with good night vision, one of the moons will have a ruddy red appearance like Mars.
That moon is Titan with a red hazy atmosphere that surrounds it. Titan is the only known object in our solar system besides Earth that has liquid lakes on its surface. The lakes are not water. Titan is so cold (290 degrees below zero Fahrenheit) that water can only exist as rock hard ice. The lakes consist of methane and ethane, hydrocarbons that exist as gasses on Earth.
The Spanish version of this column is on Page C4.