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A Perseid meteor exploding over Leuven, Belgium last night. Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/88100135@N02/9496788419">Tom Davidson</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
A Perseid meteor exploding over Leuven, Belgium last night. Photo: Tom Davidson, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Catch a glimpse of falling stars: the Perseid meteor shower

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St. Lawrence University astronomer Aileen O'Donoghue turns our attention to the wonders of the night sky, including the peak week of the Perseid meteor shower.

Also, look for Venus near the horizon at sunset, with Saturn to its left. The moon will be in Scorpio tonight, and in the morning, look for Jupiter next to Orion in Gemini.

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Reported by

Todd Moe
Morning Host and Producer

The Perseids:

The Perseids is the most dependable meteor shower, and it happens when it’s warm outside. It’s caused by debris from the orbit of comet Swift-Tuttle, that last came around in 1992 and will come back in 2022.

They’re called the Perseids because if you trace all of the streaks back, they all lead back to Perseus. The easiest way to see Perseus is between Cassiopeia and the Pleiades, and it’s a very glittery part of the Milky Way.

Because you need a wide field of view to see the Perseids, you want to look with your naked eye. The best time to see the meteor shower is between midnight and 6 am.

Sunday night there were reports of 75 meteors per hour. Monday night, there were reports of 120 meteors per hour. Last night was the peak, so we were moving through the densest part of this orbit, but the Perseids shower will continue a few more days.

Most of the meteors are sand grains, and the tail of the comet is mostly sand and dust. The comet is like a dirty ice ball. The ice evaporates and blows the dirt off. The debris gets left behind in the orbit—that’s what we see as the tail. But the Perseids also produces more fireballs from larger fist-sized pieces than other meteor showers.

This comet has been around many times all this stuff is drifting in its orbit. We hit these little sand grains at 100,000 miles per hour.

Venus:

Venus lies very low and it’s very bright in the evening. Being so bright, Venus is often mistaken for a UFO.

The planet will hang near the horizon at sunsets for the next few months. In early October, the planet will start to rise a little higher until December 6, when Venus will be 18 degrees above the horizon. And then the planet will begin to appear in the morning sky.

Venus’ orbit is smaller than the Earth’s, so it’s come around the back of the sun and it’s coming towards us. That’s why it seems to stay in the same place in relation to the sun.

Saturn:

If you look to the left of Venus, you should also be able to find Saturn. Saturn is brighter than the nearby stars.

Saturn is following the star field as they move about one degree per day to the west. (Because we orbit around the sun 365 degrees over a period of 365 days, the stars move about one degree per day.)

By September, Venus and Saturn will pass within 5 degrees of each other.

Scorpius, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali:

Tonight, if weather permits, the moon will be seen right below Zubenelgenubi. Right above will be Zubeneschamali. Zubenelgenubi means the southern claw, and Zumeneschamali means the northern claw. These stars used to be part of the constellation of Scoripus, or the scorpion.

To the left of the moon tonight, if you have a low southern horizon, you can see the whole scorpion. It's a large constellation with a bright red star. The tail of the scorpion dips down to the south and curls around and ends in these two bright stars called the Stinger. In Mexico, these are calledthe "Eyes of the Virgin."

And in the morning…:

In the morning sky, Orion is rising above the eastern horizon. There’s another bright object, Jupiter, which rises at 2:30 am. Right now Orion looks like he’s reaching for Jupiter. Jupiter is in Gemini, which is north of Orion. Farther left of Jupiter are the "twin" stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.

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