Stargazing – The Last of the Summer Fireballs

For anyone involved in public education, August is a strange month. The weather is still warm, flowers are blooming, and summer’s unrelenting cacophony of lawnmowers, chainsaws, and assorted internal-combustion engines continues unabated. One might not even notice the shortening days or the crickets warming up in the grass. And yet September is coming, with its school buses and timetables, as surely as the earth orbits the sun.

On that note, August is also a spectacular month for astronomy, and some of the year’s most impressive sights await us. In this column, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for anyone lucky enough to be under a night sky in August while on a camping trip or at a cottage. Hopefully, that means a dark-sky site, though these are becoming harder to find due to an unreasoning and still largely unregulated mania to abolish darkness. Still, there was a night in July, just a few weeks ago, when I was able to see the Milky Way stretching almost from horizon to horizon from my back porch in Millbrook, so this area, at least, is still comparatively star-friendly.

At the top of the viewing list is the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on August 12-13. This is caused by the earth passing through debris from Comet109P/Swift-Tuttle, and it is generally the most dramatic celestial fireworks display of the year. With a little luck, you might see as many as 2-3 streaks per minute, likely just before dawn when this part of the world will face directly into the debris field. Fun fact: the streaks you see may be from space rocks that have been travelling with the solar system for a thousand years or more! Unfortunately, the full moon falls on August 12th, which may wash out some of those streaks. If that happens, though, look just above the moon for an excellent compensation: Saturn at glorious opposition. On August 15, Jupiter will be close to the moon (about 3 degrees), and on August 19 the moon will host Mars (about 2 degrees south). Mars, always a campfire favourite, will climb higher in the sky as the month progresses, shifting from the eastern sky to the south-east.

Contrary to a commonly-held view, one does not need a telescope or even binoculars to enjoy a meteor shower. All you need is a blanket or lawn chair, a companion, and maybe some bug spray. If you’re really keen, a flashlight with a red filter will help preserve your night vision.

Stargazer by Dennis Vanderspek

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