Great Balls of Fire

In the deepening twilight, Venus, Saturn and Mars blink into view above the west horizon. Thursday the waxing crescent moon joins the fray, with none farther than seven degrees from any other. The planets set around 10pm at week’s end, and while Mars and Venus remain just a few degrees apart through most of the month, Saturn drops from sight over the next few days.

The moon reaches first-quarter Monday, and only then does its light last past midnight, leaving clear skies for this year’s Perseid meteor shower.

While the Perseids peak from late Thursday night through dawn Friday, if the early report of a Perseid-spawned fireball over Alabama is any indication, we’re likely to see plenty of activity, perhaps for weeks to come.

On August 3, just before 10pm est, a meteor traveling 134,000 miles an hour blazed across a 65-mile-long swath of sky. The fireball, reported NASA spokeswoman Janet Anderson, “was about six times brighter than the planet Venus.”

Each year around this time in Earth’s orbit around the sun, the planet crosses the debris-riddled trail from comet Swift-Tuttle. While the comet takes more than 100 years to circle the sun and was last observed in 1992, the myriad bits of stellar ice and dust from each of its orbits over the millennia have left behind a densely littered belt circling the sun.

As the Earth smashes into all this cosmic flotsam, the bits and pieces burst aflame as they strike the atmosphere. Clear skies this year should deliver 60 of these shooting stars each hour. Away from city lights and suburban glare, you might catch upwards of 100 an hour. The Perseids’ namesake and apparent source is the constellation Perseus, which rises in the northeast around 9pm. But these in the wee hours of the morning, they streak across the sky from any and every direction.