Prepare for Celestial Fireworks
This year’s Perseid meteor shower peaks late Sunday and Monday nights. And with the moon just a few days past new phase and setting in the early evening, the Perseids are worth staying up late or waking before the sun.
The Perseids are one of the great meteor showers of the year, and this year the International Meteor Organization predicts up to 100 an hour at the peak.
Every year at this time in August, the earth crosses the path of comet Swift-Tuttle, which is densely riddled with debris. These bits of cosmic dust and ice are speeding at 37 miles per second when they strike earth’s atmosphere. They burst into flame at temperatures hotter than 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Those that streak through the sky are meteors; those that reach the ground, called meteorites.
You might spy a Perseid meteor any time after dark, but the best come closer to midnight and into the wee hours before dawn. In fact, the higher in the sky the constellation Perseus, from which the meteors appear to emanate, the more meteors you’re likely to see.
Early Friday evening within a half-hour of sunset, the thin crescent moon hangs very low in the west with brilliant Venus just a few degrees higher. The next evening, sunset finds the moon a little higher with Venus closer to the horizon.
As darkness deepens, Saturn comes into view in the southwest. Monday night, it is joined by the waxing crescent moon, but by midnight both have slipped beneath the horizon.
An hour before dawn, Jupiter, Mars and Mercury shine in the east-northeast. Easiest to spot is Jupiter, both the brightest and the highest. Beneath Jupiter is fainter Mars. Lower still is Mercury, much brighter than Mars but so low you may need to scour the horizon with binoculars to spot the sun’s closest planet.