This week, skywatchers will be spoiled with jam-packed skies: meteors raining down, a moon-planet-star triangle and a large asteroid flyby.
Meteor Shower Peaks. The year’s best-known celestial event officially peaks at 6 p.m. GMT Monday, August 12, when the Perseid meteor shower will produce anywhere from 20 to 80 shooting stars per hour, depending on local sky conditions. Skywatchers in Asia will be best placed, since the shower’s peak time will correspond to overnight hours there. But observers around the world should be treated to an above-average performance from the annual Perseids, since the moon will be out of the way for most of the night. Straggler meteors will continue to fall for the remainder of the week. (See also: A Guide to Watching the Spectacular Perseids)
Saturn, Spica and Moon Team Up. While waiting for the skies to darken for the meteors in the early evening of Monday, August 12, look for the ringed planet Saturn perched above the waxing crescent moon in the low southwest sky. While the two objects are separated by vast interplanetary distances, they will appear less than 3 degrees apart in the sunset sky. The bright star Spica in the constellation Virgo joins the pretty pair, hanging to the lower right of the moon and forming a striking triangular pattern.
Moon Visit Mars Rival. After darkness falls on Wednesday, August 14 and Thursday, August 15, check out the quarter moon sliding by the red giant star Antares, 600 light years away. The lead star in the constellation Scorpius shines midway along the mythical S-shaped arachnoids stellar pattern and will appear to the lower left of the moon on Wednesday and to lower right on Thursday.
Asteroid Peaks. On Friday, August 16, the asteroid 7 Iris reaches its brightest in Earth’s skies for the year, at 7.9 magnitude. This makes this giant 124 mile (200 kilometer) wide space rock an easy target for both binoculars and small telescopes–as long as you know where to look. The large main asteroid belt rock will be the brightest of all asteroids for 2013 and will be conveniently gliding by a faint naked-eye star, 3rd magnitude Beta (β) Aquarii, on both Friday and Saturday nights. Iris is easy to spot because it appears close to this star, a tad more than the width of the full moon, or 40 arc-minutes north.
Rise and Shine with Mars and Pollux. Early risers looking towards the low eastern sky at dawn on on Saturday, August 17 can catch the Red Planet at its closest appearance to 33-light year distant star Pollux, one of the Gemini twins. The Planet-star pair will be less than 6 degrees apart, a little more than the width of three fingers at arm’s length. Look carefully above Pollux for Castor–the other Gemini twin–and to their right for the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter.
Moon Rises above Teapot. After nightfall on Saturday, August 17, use the waxing gibbous moon to help track down one of the brighter summer constellations visible in the low southern sky in the northern hemisphere: Sagittarius. Look for a giant teapot pattern of stars below right of the moon, complete with handle, lid and spout. This marks the brightest stars in the mythical archer constellation.
Later in the month, when the moon moves away from this region of the sky, look for celestial steam coming out of the teapot’s spout. This is the glow of our home galaxy. Staring into this region of the sky, you are looking towards the center of the Milky Way, more than 30,000 light years away. Train your binoculars or telescopes anywhere in the vicinity of Sagittarius and you will notice that it is packed with countless number of stars, clusters and beautiful nebulae.