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A meteor shower planet peppered morning sky

The peak of the Perseid meteor shower is still upon us, and in most years it’s the marquee stargazing event in August, but not so much this year. Remember the classic ’70s hit by Starbuck, “Moonlight Feels Right”? Moonlight is not so right during meteor showers, as it whitewashes the night sky and hides many of the fainter meteors or “shooting stars.” The Perseids peak this coming Wednesday morning from 1 am until just before the morning twilight kicks in. The problem is that during that same time there will be a nearly half moon in the Marshall heavens. While it won’t do as much visual damage to seeing the Perseids as a full moon would, you’ll probably only see about half of the meteors you would if the sky was moonless. It’s still worth losing sleep over because you may still see over 50 meteors an hour, especially in the countryside.

The best way to enjoy the Perseids, or any other meteor shower, is to lie back on a reclining lawn chair, roll your eyes all around the sky, and see how many meteors you can spot. It’s a really fun group activity. The more eyes in the sky the better! Again, the best time to watch for them is after 1 am Wednesday morning. You’ll probably also catch a few falling stars on Monday and Tuesday morning as well, although the moon will be a little fuller.

Meteor showers occur when the Earth, in its orbit around the sun, runs into a trail of small debris left behind by a comet. Comets are basically dirty snowballs of ice embedded with debris. They have highly elongated orbits that take them from the very distant regions of our solar system to our inner neighborhood near the sun. As they near our home star these dirty snowballs partially melt, liberating and littering small bits of debris ranging from dust-sized pebble-sized as they go. Many times comets totally disintegrate.

As the Earth swings into these trails, the debris gets sucked into the Earth’s atmosphere because of gravity and burns up. The meteors can slam into our atmosphere with speeds over 44 miles per second. Much of the light we see as meteor streaks are not so much because of incineration, but rather the temporary atomic destabilizing of the column of air the debris is coming through.

While the Perseids may not be quite as dazzling as the could be, you will be impressed with the very bright planets Jupiter and Saturn in the western sky, although they will set by 4 a.m. The bright planet Mars will dominate the southern sky with it’s easy to see red-orange glow until twilight.

By the way, speaking of Mars, this is the time of year you might see the internet rumor that’s been rearing its head since 2003. It claims that Mars will be so close to the Earth on Aug. 27 that it will be as large as the full moon in the sky. It just isn’t true!

What is true, however, is that Earth and Mars will be drawing closer and closer to each over the next couple of months. Mars will get much brighter than it is even now. On Oct. 8, Mars will be as close to Earth as it will be until 2035.

The exceptionally bright planet Venus is also shining away like crazy in the early morning eastern sky. It rises shortly before 3 a.m. The reason for its brightness is twofold. Not only is it very close to the Earth, but it also has a very reflective cloud cover. Through even binoculars Venus will appear crescent-shaped this month. Both Venus and Mercury go through phases like our moon because their orbits lie inside Earth’s orbit around the sun. This coming Saturday morning, Aug. 15, a thin waning crescent moon will be just to the upper left of Venus. That will be a tremendous celestial hugging worth waking up for!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

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