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August Astronomical Highlights: Summer’s Best Meteor Shower

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August Astronomical Highlights: Summer’s Best Meteor Shower
The Perseid meteors shower shot In Aug. 12, 2016, in Inner Mongolia China. Bjdlzx / Getty Images

By Kelly Kizer Whitt

August is the time to sit back, relax and enjoy the free show overhead.

The Perseid meteor shower is one of the most prolific annual meteor showers and the only one that occurs in the summer. The Perseids can produce up to 100 meteors an hour at their peak, which is around Aug. 11/12. Skies will be nice and dark thanks to a new moon on Aug. 11, which will make it easier to see even the faintest streaks. Find a location away from trees, buildings and light pollution, and look up to catch the fast-moving meteors as they burn up upon contact with our atmosphere. These meteors come from the Great Comet of 1862, Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle.


Parade of Planets

A sky full of planets continues to entertain us in August. The brightest and closest planet, Venus, drops low in the west and sets not long after sunset. Jupiter trails behind Venus in the southwest, setting four hours after sunset at the beginning of the month and disappearing more quickly by the end. Venus mingles with the moon on Aug. 13 and 14, and Jupiter gets a visit from the moon on Aug. 16 and 17.

Saturn is low in the south, floating before the stars of the Milky Way. The Ringed Planet lies in Sagittarius, close to some stunning star clusters and nebulae. The moon will come into the picture on Aug. 20, brightening the Milky Way environs, so try a couple days before or after this date if you want to hunt down deep-sky delights near Saturn.

Mars reached opposition in late July, one of its closest approaches to Earth in a number of years. The bright, reddish-orange color of the planet should still be unmistakable in the south-southeast. A planet-wide dust storm has been extinguishing our view of features of the Red Planet, but during calmer weather it's possible to spy white wisps of polar caps and clouds on the Martian planet through backyard telescopes. The moon passes Mars on Aug. 22 and 23, and it hits full phase on Aug. 26 at 4:56 a.m. PDT. August's full moon is sometimes called the Sturgeon Moon.

Double Transit on Jupiter

Get out your telescope or binoculars on Aug. 23 to catch the double shadow transit on Jupiter. The timing of the event will depend on your location, so start looking after it gets dark to see if the eclipse is already in progress or about to begin. The dark shadows of Io and Europa will pass in front of Jupiter over the course of more than an hour. The first shadow to enter onto Jupiter is Io's, while the one that tags behind is Europa's. Look for the four Galilean moons arrayed out to one side of the planet. Callisto is farthest away with Ganymede near it. Close in to Jupiter are Europa and then Io, which is the closest of all. If you are able to watch early enough, you'll get to see Europa and then Io appear off the limb of the planet after they have passed in front of Jupiter.

A partial solar eclipse is on tap for August, but it can only be seen from northern Asia and Europe. The next eclipse that will be visible to viewers in the U.S. is a total lunar eclipse in January.

Chance at a Comet

It's 4 a.m. in early August and you can't sleep. What to do? Grab a pair of binoculars, go outside before the sun rises, and find the northeastern horizon. Look to see if the constellation Gemini has emerged above the horizon yet (actual time of rising depends on your location). If you aren't familiar with Gemini and its bright "twin" stars, look for the better-known constellation of Orion rising in the east and then scan the horizon to the left (north) until you see the bright pair of stars, one above the other. From August 4 to 6, a brightening comet known as C/2017 S3 PanSTARRS will be traveling between the top star, Castor, to the bottom star, Pollux. If the comet increases in brightness as predicted, you won't even need the binoculars to see it.

The comet will stay close to the horizon, reaching perihelion on Aug. 15, when it should be at its brightest. However, a surprise outburst in July, which gave it a quick brightening and greenish hue, may have knocked the stuffing out of its August showing. Unfortunately, mid-August is also when the comet is closest to the horizon and the rising sun, which might wash out your view. But if you're awake, it's worth taking a look. Perhaps it will have another surge as it gets to within just .21 AU from the sun, a final hurrah, before it most likely disintegrates.

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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