By Calvin L. Chrisman
Two things happen with predictable regularity every August. The first is the Perseids meteor shower, and the second is the repetition of the Internet rumor that Mars will be the closest it has been to Earth in about 60,000 years and that it will appear to be as large as the full Moon. As far as Mars goes, the closest approach in almost 60.000 years happened in 2003 and will not happen again in the lifetime of anyone now on Earth. The size-of-the-full-Moon story is just that – a story. Apparently, there was an article in 2003 that said that Mars, when viewed through a telescope at 75x magnification, would appear the size of the naked eye Moon. The emails that pass for fact drop the telescope part and ignore the seven year gap. Oh well. If you want to see what Mars really looks like these days, keep reading.
It is not a rumor that the annual Perseids meteor shower will be active in August and will peak between midnight and dawn on the mornings of August 11-12 and 12-13. This will be an excellent year to watch this always-reliable meteor shower. Every three years, the Moon’s cycle repeats itself and this year will be the first since 2007 with no interference from the Moon during the Perseids. They will be most visible after midnight. This is the time when Earth faces most directly into the on-coming meteors. Assuming clear skies, you should be able to spot a meteor every minute or two. It takes a little patience, but it will be worth it.
You do not need to look toward the constellation Perseus, which will rise in the northeast after midnight. The meteors will be visible across the entire sky and their tails will point in the direction of Perseus. Go out after midnight, lie back in a lawn chair with a blanket or sleeping bag and watch a dark part of the sky. By the way, that bright object you might notice in the eastern sky is the planet Jupiter.
If you have ever wondered, a meteor is the streak of light you see crossing the sky. If it survives a trip through the atmosphere and makes it to the Earth, it is then referred to as a meteorite. The light trail that you see is not the space rock (aka meteoroid) burning up; it is a trail of ionized gases caused by the shock wave of the rock passing into the atmosphere at high speed.
If you are not a late-night person, you can observe three planets moving fairly rapidly (in astronomical terms) during the month. Venus, Saturn and Mars (sorry, but it’s a small point of light) are all visible in the western sky about an hour after sunset. At the beginning of the month, they will be closely grouped with Venus (the brightest) to the right of the other two. Bright Saturn will be above and to the right of red-orange Mars. By the end of the month, Venus will have moved to the left of Mars and Saturn will be a good way over to the right. The crescent Moon will move below this collection of planets on the evenings of the Perseids (August 11-13). It will be an eye-catching alignment.