When is the next meteor shower? You’re in luck—it’s this week.
The next major celestial event in the calendar is the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks on the night of Tuesday, August 11 into Wednesday, 12 (though the following night should be almost as good).
Always an annual highlight, the peak of the Perseids is this year slightly marred by the presence of a bright Moon just when the action is due to start.
You should still look for “shooting stars” because you’ll still see the brighter of the about 60 per hour, but it might also be wise to have a few other targets in mind to keep busy between sightings.
Besides, being busy scanning the night sky is the best way to see “shooting stars.”
So here are seven other celestial sights to look for as you wait for “shooting stars” this week.
1 – Jupiter and Saturn
When and where: in the south after dark
Cast your eyes to the south as soon as it gets dark and you’ll see bright Jupiter—visible even in early twilight—and, to its left, the ringed planet Saturn. The latter is about 10 times fainter.
2 – The Milky Way
When and where: streaming up from the southeast after dark
It’s now “Milky Way season.” The best way of seeing the arc of our home galaxy in the night sky is to use the planets as a guide. Jupiter and Saturn are right on eastern its boundary; look slightly further south and you’re eyes-on with the Milky Way, though whether you can see it will depending you how dark you location is (the Milky Way vanishes in light pollution) and how dark-adapted your eyes are. So drive away from the city to get a better view—and keep away from white light (including “smartphone-light”) for 20 minutes. The same rules apply to spotting “shooting stars.”
3 – The Northern Cross
When and where: high in the sky after dark
Go outside after dusk and look straight above your head and you will see a really bright star high up in the sky, slightly east. That’s Vega, a close star about 25 light years away that all other stars’ brightness are measured against. To its left is Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan. Deneb is the top star in the “Northern Cross” with Albireo at its bottom. The flanking stars are Gienah and Al Fawaris. The Northern Cross is mostly an upside-down version of the Swan, but with clipped wings.
4 – The Summer Triangle
When and where: high in the sky after dark
If you’ve found Jupiter, the Milky Way and the Northern Cross then you’ve almost got the Summer Triangle, an important anchor of the summer night sky.
Deneb—the top of the Northern Cross—is one of the three stars of the Summer Triangle, the other two being brighter Vega in Lyra and Altair in Aquila, the Eagle, the latter of which is down towards the horizon.
The brightest part of the Milky Way (as seen from the northern hemisphere) streams through the Summer Triangle.
5 – The Pleiades and the ‘radiant’ of the Perseids
When and where: rising in the northeast an hour after midnight
A cluster of blue-white stars within the constellation of Taurus, the Pleiades (also known as Messier 45) is one of the closest open star clusters to Earth at 444 light-years. Its 100+ stars are young hot B-types just 100 million years old.
The Pleiades is just below the constellation of Perseus, which is the radiant—the apparent origin of— “shooting stars” from the Perseid meteor shower this week.
So if you can see the Pleiades you know you’re maxmizing your chances of seeing “shooting stars.”
6 – The Moon and Mars
When and where: eastern sky about an hour after midnight
On Tuesday, August 11, the Moon will rise about 54% illuminated around midnight. That’s not ideal for “shooting star”-gazing, but it will be a beautiful sight when rising. As a bonus, the red planet Mars will be just above the Moon, with Mars slowly getting larger and brighter in the sky as it gets closer to Earth.
7 – Polaris, the North Star
When and where: due north, any time after dark
Polaris, the North Star, sits directly above the North Pole. Since Earth’s axis points appear to point directly at it, Polaris never appears to move, only revolve, so it’s circumpolar—always visible.
Finding Polaris is easy, and once learned, you’ll forever be able to get your compass bearings on a clear, dark night.
First, find the Big Dipper/Plough/Saucepan in the northern sky. Then locate the two stars at the far end of its bowl—Merak and Dubhe—and draw an imaginary line between them. Continue that line about four times the distance until you come to a reasonably bright star on its own. That’s Polaris, which is merely the 48th-brightest star in the sky despite its position.
The height of Polaris above your horizon gives away the latitude of your location, effectively showing your distance from the equator. At the equator, you can’t see Polaris, and at the North Pole, it would be directly above you.
Having picked-out all of these sights you’ll almost certainly have spent enough time stargazing to see at least a few “shooting stars” from the Perseid meteor shower.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.