Normally we watch the summer meteors on August 11. Indeed, our annual Night of the Shooting Stars program will unfold that night at Mohonk Mountain House. But listen up: The Moon will then be one night past full. It will wash out all but the brightest streakers. Bottom line? This week may be the best bet for the summer dazzlers.
The Perseid shower actually starts on July 27, even if it reaches its peak a fortnight later. Right now you can expect ten to 12 meteors per hour. Moreover, the lesser-known Delta Aquarids shower is also unfolding. Each shower produces icy debris from a different comet, and each has members that streak across the sky in different directions. What they have in common is a strong preference for the hours between midnight and dawn – the later the better.
So if you love falling stars (and who doesn’t?) and you live away from the lights of town, and you’ve got a night that’s clear and not too hazy, and you’re suffering from insomnia and need something to do, lie out in a lawn chair or on a blanket, say at 3 or 4 a.m. Guaranteed, you’ll catch a meteor every four minutes or so if you’ve got a wide expanse of sky.
The Perseids collide with our planet head-on and are thus superfast, at 37 miles per second. The Deltas hit us sideways and are 50 percent slower. The Perseids display many bright specimens, and a third of them have long trails that linger like Cheshire Cat smiles. The Deltas are dimmer, and only three percent leave trails.
The Moon sets before midnight all this week. So again, the wee hours of each night are perfect. While we’re out there, we might see other things moving. A slow dot that takes a couple of minutes to cross the sky is a satellite. About 300 are large enough and low enough to be easily seen. Their number dramatically increases during the 90 minutes before dawn, when you’ll see them almost constantly.
If the light flashes periodically or shows red or green, it’s just a plane. The wee hours don’t see too much air traffic, so you’re probably observing a FedEx or other cargo jet. Then, at 5 a.m. when the first signs of dawn touch the eastern sky, Orion rises. To its left, the solitary planet Venus dominates the scene. Brighter than anything else, it generates UFO reports even when at its personal dimmest, as it is now.
Finding Venus low in the east at around 5 a.m. is a good rehearsal. In a couple of weeks, on the morning of the 18th, it will have a spectacularly dazzling conjunction with Jupiter. The two will practically merge. So if you’re not up for meteors this week, mark that day’s dawn on the calendar. If your home has a clear window facing low to the east, it’ll be worth setting the alarm.
Incidentally, you might wonder if a planet ever actually passes directly in front of another. Can you imagine how amazing that would look? No such perfect planet alignment happened during the entire 20th century. The next will be November of 2065, and yes: Venus will cross the stormy striped face of Jupiter. Keep eating those health foods.
This week’s column was adapted from Bob Berman’s newest book, Zoom.