Heavenly Objects

Are the stars out tonight? They should be — and in a pretty big way — if the muzzafuzzin’ summer-stealing marine layer parked off the coast for far too long this season doesn’t roll in after sundown and eclipse the view.

Chances are you’ve heard we’re in the midst of the annual Perseid meteor shower, which stargeeks are gleefully reporting is going to super freakin’ awesome this year with visibility aided by a lack of lunar glare. What you may not know is that an opening act has been scheduled prior to that main event tonight, an astromonical equivalent along the lines of the Fab Four reuniting. Namely Venus, Saturn, Mars and the crescent Moon will be found gathered in a tight 10-degree circle to hang out and beam together at us in the western sky between sunset and about 10 p.m.

Then the Perseid party starts and goes on until dawn — unless the celestial bouncers can’t keep the marine layer literally at bay. Assuming things stay clear, experts are saying observers can expect to see dozens of debris trails per hour. One report says as many as 60 an hour might be visible, while still another that number at 100. Golly! Do I hear 200?

NASA Astronomer Dr. Tony Phillips writes: “The Perseid meteor shower is caused by debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every 133 years the huge comet swings through the inner solar system and leaves behind a trail of dust and gravel. When Earth passes through the debris, specks of comet-stuff hit the atmosphere at 140,000 mph and disintegrate in flashes of light. These meteors arecalled Perseids because they fly out of the constellation Perseus.” And if you’ve read your Graves’ “The Greek Myths” (or fine: seen either version of the “Clash of the Titans”) we all know who Perseus was… son o’ Zeus, Medusa killa, rescuer of Andromeda. But I digress.

The constellation Perseus will take its place above the horizon in the northeastern skies after 10 p.m. and between then and dawn closes in on the sky’s zenith. Happy shooting-star gazing.

About the photo: No, that image has nothing to do with a meteor shower. That’s a timed-exposure (about 30 minutes) I made of stars tracking over the Last Chance mountains, taken last November in the pitch dark from a position beside Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes. It looks like night in broad daylight because the landscape and mountains were illuminated by the moon’s light coming from behind the camera (click to biggify). I briefly toyed with the idea of grabbing a flashlight creating a goofy light trail by running out a 10o yards and back but I decided it might disturb the sandworms. And we all know that’s never a good idea.

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