Mark your calendars! We have two eye-catching celestial events looming on the horizon in the coming days ahead.
The Moon and Jupiter Pair Up
This Friday evening, August 9th, 2019, the Moon passes near to the largest planet in the solar system: Jupiter. This is something that will be readily evident whether you’re in a brightly-lit city or out somewhere in the country.
Look to the sky about one hour after the Sun sets that night, this eye-catching celestial duo will be visible in the southern sky, roughly one-third up from the horizon to the point directly overhead (called the zenith). The Moon will be just over two days past its first quarter or “half phase”—nearly 74% illuminated by the Sun. You’ll see it situated to the upper left of Jupiter, a distance of roughly 1¾ degrees.
Since the Moon measures one-half degree in width, 1¾ degrees is equal to about 3½ times the apparent size of the Moon, and that means you should be able to fit at least three full moons in the gap between them in Friday’s evening sky. And yet on Friday night when you see them in the sky, they’ll be seemingly much closer together because of a most interesting optical illusion: the Moon appears twice as large in apparent size to our eyes compared to what its one-half degree size would otherwise suggest.
In addition, don’t overlook Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, siting less than 7 degrees to the lower right of Jupiter (your clenched fist held at arm’s length measures about 10 degrees). Antares shines only a fraction as bright as Jupiter, but sharply contrasts it both in terms of color (Jupiter appears a silvery-white while Antares glows distinctly red) and Jupiter also shines with a steady light while Antares appears to twinkle.
Look for Perseid Meteorites
Over the weekend, it will be time once again for the annual performance of the Perseid (pronounced PER-see-id) meteor shower, the most famous of all meteor showers. It never fails to provide an impressive display and, due to its summertime appearance, it tends to provide the majority of meteors seen by non-astronomy enthusiasts. Normally, on their night of peak activity, a single observer in a location free of any bright lights, and with a wide-open view of the sky, might see anywhere from 50–100 meteors per hour; those who live in big cities or brightly lit suburbs would, of course, see fewer.
In 2019, peak meteor activity is due late on Monday night (August 12th) into Tuesday morning (August 13th), but unfortunately, there is going to be a major hindrance for prospective meteor watchers—the Moon.
Yes, that same Moon that will provide us with a lovely eye-catching display on Friday night now will play the villain for those trying to view this year’s performance of the Perseids.
By Monday night, the Moon will be practically full (97 percent illuminated) and its brilliant light will no doubt wash out all but the very brightest of these swift streaks which chiefly emanate from out of the northeast part of the sky.
But good news: there is a way you can circumvent that dazzling moonlight (albeit it briefly) but you’ll have to set your alarm clocks: on Monday morning the Moon will set at around 4 a.m. The first light of dawn will not appear until roughly 4:30 a.m. Between those two times, there will be about a 30-minute “window” where the sky will be totally dark and you can spot a few shooting stars.
While the hourly rate will be somewhat lower, the Moon will set about 50 minutes earlier on Tuesday (3:10 a.m.), which means an additional 50 minutes of dark, moonless skies to watch for these celestial streakers.
Will You Spot A Fireball?
Perseids are typically fast, bright and occasionally leave incandescent trails lasting for a few seconds in their wake. A Perseid fireball can be quite spectacular and bright enough to attract attention even in the moonlight.
So, if you hope to get a good look at this year’s Perseids, Monday and Tuesday mornings just prior to the crack of dawn are the times to look.
Set your alarm clock accordingly, and here’s hoping for clear skies!