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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

A celestial double-header

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Well, I waited to post this column until early Monday morning to see if the Mars Science Laboratory, AKA Curiosity, either made a safe landing on Mars using their "Rube Goldberg" landing system, or gave our sister planet a new crater.

And they did, land safely that is. All of the equipment, systems, and procedures on a very complicated, very difficult mission worked and the rover landed safely Sunday evening.

That was the first event in our double-header week of celestial happenings. Up next this coming weekend is number two; the annual Perseid meter shower.

A meteor shower occurs when Earth passes through the debris stream of a comet which has passed through the inner solar system leaving bits of dust and gravel in its wake.

When this debris collides with Earth's atmosphere it begins to heat and glow, often leaving the bright, smoky trail which we see.

Meteor showers are best observed from dark places where no street lights or other lighting can interfere. A fading crescent moon will rise about 1:30 a.m. MDT, but should prove no problem for observing.

The best time for viewing the Perseids will be after midnight Saturday evening, Aug. 11 into the early hours of Sunday morning, Aug. 12.

That is when Perseus, the constellation where the radiant, or place where the meteors seem to appear, is well above the northeastern horizon. Perseus is an "A" shaped constellation which seems to be lying on its side.

But, that is not all the happenings this week.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 11, about an hour before sunrise, the moon will visit Jupiter and Aldebaran in Taurus, the Bull, just above the eastern horizon. Use your binoculars on Aldebaran for a nice view of the Hyades star cluster just beyond it.

If you are out watching, you may even see a few early Perseids.

On Monday morning, Aug. 13, the moon pays a visit to the bright "Morning Star," Venus. Look about an hour before sunrise.

If you are not a morning person, then on the evening of Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 13 and 14; about an hour after sunset, look in the southwest for a nice grouping of the planets Mars and Saturn with the star Spica in Virgo.

Over the last few weeks we have watched as Mars moved steadily eastward to make a nice triangle with the other two.

Now they are lined up in a row with Saturn on top, Mars in the middle and Spica on the bottom. Mars will continue to move eastward until in makes another triangle -- this time with Mars on the other side -- later in the month.

Also this week, tiny Mercury makes another appearance in our sky, this time as a morning object. Since Mercury is notoriously difficult to locate it is to our advantage that a crescent moon will be nearby to help.

About a half-hour before sunrise on Wednesday, Aug. 15, a slender crescent moon will be near the tiny dot that is the planet nearest the sun. Binoculars will be of great help.

SKY WATCH: New moon, Friday, Aug. 17.

NEXT WEEK: Perhaps this time we will get to the Summer Triangle and, as always, more astronomical blathering.

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