Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of Aug 6th - Aug 12th,  2004

Summer Stars

Columns Archive

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  There are a host of celestial delights in the evening sky to behold currently.
The Constellation Perseus

The Constellation Perseus

The Perseid meteor shower will be at its height in the early morning of Thursday, August 12th EDT, but it begins on the 11th and there should be continued activity on the 13th as well. With the New Moon on the 15th, the lunar lamp light will be low, making for some stellar viewing. Outbursts of up to 500 meteors per hour has been predicted for the shower this year, so take a blanket or your favorite sleeping bag, find a good friend, lie down and look up! Viewing will be best in the hours after midnight as Perseus rises in the northeast. It will be possible to see the beginnings of this activity as early as 10 PM, but the shower does not really reach its peak until after the constellation is higher in the sky. The meteors will seem to emanate (radiate) or move away from Perseus.

  With the late lunar crescent not emerging until the predawn hours, any early evening viewing this week should be excellent, depending on the weather. If you're lucky, you may be able to spot Mercury setting in the west right after sundown, although knowing where to look and climbing a hill to oversee local vegetation, buildings and the like would be helpful. Notice where the Sun is shortly before it goes down, and then after sunset look in the same general vicinity for Mercury. Our elusive fleet footed messenger was at its greatest elongation on July 26th, and is positioning himself for his 'dive' back into the rays of the Sun over the next few days where he will remain hidden from our sight.

Perseus and Medusa

Perseus and Medusa

  Jupiter is the bright star setting in the west shortly after sunset and is much easier to spot; but check it out now, as soon the Sun's rays will swallow even this luminous planet, as it too appears to plunge into the solar fire over the next few weeks.

  After it gets dark you will be able to see Arcturus high overhead, setting towards the west. It is marked by the handle of the Big Dipper. Simply follow the curve away from the 'cup' of the dipper, and it will point out this bright star. Continue this arc from the handle through Arcturus until it approaches the horizon, and you will find Spica, the sheaf of Wheat the Virgin holds in her hand.

  Having spotted Arcturus, it will be easy enough to see the three stars of the huge summer triangle. They will be high overhead and slightly to the east. These were depicted by some as avian stars. A double headed eagle carries the harp of Vega and Lyra in its claws. The southernmost star is Altair, the Eagle, while Deneb marks the tail of Cygnus, the Swan. If you're lucky enough to know someone with a good telescope, have them show you Albireo, beta Cygnus, the head of the Swan. This is a binary star, whose colors represent one of the true jewels of heaven, combining topaz yellow and sapphire blue gems in close proximity.

  Looking to the south after sunset, the red giant Antares commands the southern horizon. Four hundred times the size of our Sun, as the heart of the Scorpion this is one of the more prominent constellations, its body and curving tail dipping so low beneath the ecliptic so as not to be fully seen in northern latitudes. The further south you go, the more it rises in the sky and is easier to spot.

  There is much to see in our summer skies. Get out and enjoy some of this glorious crown of creation.


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