The nights are warm and it is getting dark at least a little bit earlier. If our skies remain smoke-free, here are a few things you might be able to see up there.
August hosts the most reliable and spectacular meteor shower of the year, the Perseids, named for the constellation they appear to come out of, Perseus. This year the moon will not interfere with the show, allowing us to see even the dimmest of the meteors whizzing by overhead. Even though you can spot them all month, the best night will probably be Aug. 12-13. After midnight is best because then we are looking into the direction where the earth is traveling through space. It is kind of like looking through the front windshield of your car while driving in a snowstorm.
Most things in astronomy are big and far away. Meteors are just the opposite. Think about kernels of grape nut cereal. Rather than being light years away, these little chunks of rock are right on top of us, only 30 to 50 miles up. They are going fast too. The Perseids clock in at 37 miles per second. It is their speed that allows us to see them. When they hit the first thin bits of our atmosphere, the friction immediately heats them up, and we witness their fiery deaths. With luck you might see as many as a hundred an hour.
Our word planet comes from a Greek word meaning wanderer and they have been wandering all over the place. In early August you might catch a glimpse of Venus low in the west during twilight. If you have a telescope, be sure to check out the planet of love. She will appear as a thin little crescent. If you miss her this month, look again in early September in the east just before dawn.
Saturn will easily be visible in the southeast as soon as it gets dark. A small telescope will show you its famous rings.
Look for brilliant Jupiter rising in the east in the early dawn. If you are up late watching for meteors, it would be a good time to spot the largest planet in our solar system.
Summer is the best time to get acquainted with noctilucent clouds. These strange clouds with electric luminous tendrils can be seen on occasion during late twilight about 90 minutes after sunset. They are much higher than normal clouds and are illuminated by the setting sun later than everything else.
Experts believe that climate change is giving us more sightings of these bluish clouds. Go online for pictures to be sure you are seeing the real thing.
Another thing to look for while you are out there watching for meteors is the Milky Way stretching from north to south across the sky. Look for a band of pale light crossing the sky passing almost overhead.
Our ancestors have gazed at it in awe for centuries wondering what it might be. Some thought it was the breast milk of a goddess. Others imagined it to be a celestial river.
Only in modern times have we realized that it is our home in the vast cosmos. We inhabit this vast array of stars with 300 billion other suns and countless planets. It is shaped like a huge pinwheel with spiral arms radiating out of a central hub. We find ourselves tucked away in between two of the spiral arms in a blank spot devoid of the myriad of stars elsewhere in the galaxy.
The view of the heavens from one of the spiral arms would be filled with stars beyond our wildest imagination, but we would be dangerously close to potentially lethal supernova explosions and other threats to our tiny, delicate planet.
One more thing about summer stargazing. Bring plenty of bug repellant. You might miss a flaming meteor while trying to swat a mosquito.