This month features the Perseid meteor shower, one of the two best displays of “shooting stars” all year. These meteors are caused when little bits of grit, shed by a comet called Swift-Tuttle, slam into our atmosphere at 37 miles per second. Every August, like clockwork, we cross the comet’s orbit and plow right through this dusty debris. You don’t need any special equipment to enjoy the Perseids, and so this annual sky show makes a wonderful activity for your whole family. The Sky Tour podcast offers great tips for when and where to see the shower’s peak activity.
During August, you can easily spot Jupiter and somewhat dimmer Saturn low in the southeast after sunset. As the weeks go by, watch how they gradually slide closer together.
Sky & Telescope
While you’re waiting for the Perseids to show up, you can pass the time by taking in this summer’s dynamic duo, Jupiter and Saturn. You’ll find these two planets shining low in the southeast as soon as it starts to get dark after sunset. Jupiter is quite a bit brighter, both because it’s the bigger world and because it’s a lot closer than Saturn both to the Sun and to Earth.
If you wait 3 hours or so after sunset, you’ll see a third planet rise in the east, well to the lower left of Jupiter and Saturn. That’s Mars, and its slightly reddish hue will definitely catch your attention. As you stare at the Red Planet, think about the fact that during July three spacecraft — from three different countries — were launched toward Mars. They’ll all arrive next February.
Some amazing stars and constellations await you on these balmy summer evenings. One especially bright star, a little to the west of due south after sunet, is Antares, the heart of the constellation Scorpius. Antares means “the rival of Mars,” and you should be able to notice that this star — like the planet — is slightly reddish. It’s an enormous red supergiant star about 550 light-years away.
Scorpius is one of the few constellations whose stars really do match the shape of the pattern’s name. You can use Antares as a starting to trace out the entire critter, stinger and all! Our podcast tells you what to look for — and how to find a celestial “teapot” lurking nearby.
In fact, the Sky Tour podcast is a great way to enjoy the stars and planets that you see overhead. It’s been featured by Sky & Telescope every month since 2006, and it keeps getting more popular all the time. So if you’ve got 15 minutes to spare, why not give it a try?