Look west at nightfall on Aug. 13, 2012, to see Saturn, Mars, Spica in a line.

An interesting line-up appears in the sky the next two evenings. Tonight (8/13/12) and tomorrow (8/14/12) three bright objects—Saturn, Mars, Spica—form a nearly straight line.

Look for this striking sight at nightfall low in the west-southwest. You can easily cover up all three with just your fist held at arm’s length.

Saturn, Mars, and Spica appear close together only because from Earth’s viewpoint they currently happen to lie in roughly the same line of sight. In reality, Mars and Saturn are millions of miles away from each other, and the star Spica is about 260 light years away.

As planets, Mars and Saturn noticeably move over time against the background of stars—Mars, especially. Watch Mars over the next few evenings and you’ll be able to tell it’s trekking eastward relative to Saturn and Spica.

By the following evening (Aug. 14), Mars has shifted, just a bit, toward the east (left) relative to Saturn and Spica. Can you see the difference?

As the Saturn-Mars-Spica configuration continues to change shape, one way to keep track of which object is which is by remembering that stars twinkle, but planets (generally) shine steadily. To tell the two planets apart, remember that Mars is called the Red Planet for a reason—it really does look a bit reddish in the sky—whereas Saturn is more of a pale gold.

On the evening of August 21, the waxing crescent Moon joins this star and planet grouping.

Perseid meteors are named for the constellation Perseus, which lies in the direction from where the meteors appear to shoot. Saturday evening (8/11/12) Perseus is low, and you won't see as many Perseids.

A summer fireworks show, the kind put on by nature, happens this weekend. The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks the night of August 11-12, 2012.

Conveniently for many of us, this is a Saturday night/ Sunday morning. Less conveniently, seeing the most meteors means staying up very late or getting up very early.

Expect to see more meteors after midnight than before midnight. And to see the most meteors (up to 1 per minute on average from a clear dark site), try the last dark hour before dawn. For the Chapel Hill area, that will be 4 to 5 a.m. on Sunday, August 12.

In the pre-dawn sky on Sunday morning (8/12/12), when Perseus is higher, you'll see more meteors as well as a bonus: two bright planets and the Moon.

Tips on viewing the 2012 Perseids:

1) Check the weather to make sure the skies won’t be overcast or worse and you’d be better off sleeping in. For predictions of cloud cover, see the Clear Sky Chart website (start with “Find a chart”).

2) Find a dark site, with a wide open view of the sky. Trying to view near unshielded city lights will mean missing all but the brightest meteors.

3) Take a reclining chair or sleeping bag so you can gaze up at the sky in comfort.

4) Bring layers. When you’re acclimated to 90 degrees, an August night can feel chilly.

5) Plan to be outside for more than just a few minutes. Your eyes need time to adjust to the dark, and there may be short periods with no meteors at all.

6) Look toward the darkest part of your sky and away from any sky glow created by light pollution. If the Moon has risen (moonrise is about 2 a.m. Sunday), keep it out of your field of view so moonlight doesn’t interfere with your meteor viewing. You do not need to know how to find Perseus to see the Perseids. The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky.

7) All you need are your eyes. Binoculars and telescopes restrict the area of the sky you can see, making it difficult to spot meteors.

Although meteors are sometimes called “shooting stars,” they are not stars. Meteors happen when cosmic debris interacts with our atmosphere, creating streaks of light in the sky. Perseid meteors come from tiny chunks of debris left in Earth’s path by the comet Swift-Tuttle. For more information about the Perseid meteor shower, see the American Meteor Society website.

If you’re not an after-midnight kind of person and you’d like to experience the Perseids as a community event, please join us this Saturday evening (Aug. 11, 2012). Weather permitting, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center will host a skywatching session at Jordan Lake, Ebenezer Church Recreation Area, from 9 to 11 p.m.

Early on, we’ll look through telescopes at Mars and Saturn, which currently form a striking trio with the bright star Spica low in the west; later on, we expect to see some Perseid meteors. The skywatching session is free and open to the public.

UPDATE: Due to weather forecasts, we’ve canceled Morehead’s skywatching session for Saturday evening. If the weather clears, we hope you’ll be able to see the Perseids from your backyard.

If you miss the Perseids, there's always the Geminid meteor shower in December. It might be cold, but seeing lots of Geminids doesn't require any of this 4 a.m. business.


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