Perseid meteor shower peaks in planet-rich sky
The persistent twilight that has swamped Scotland’s night sky since May is subsiding in time for us to appreciate four bright evening planets and arguably the best meteor shower of the year.
The Perseid shower returns every year between 23 July and 20 August as the Earth cuts through the stream of meteoroids that orbit the Sun along the path of Comet Swift-Tuttle. As they rush into the Earth’s atmosphere at 59 km per second, they disintegrate in a swift streak of light with the brighter ones often laying down a glowing train that may take a couple of seconds or more to dissipate.
The shower is due to peak in the early hours of the 13th at around 02:00 BST with rates in excess of 80 meteors per hour for an observer under ideal conditions – under a moonless dark sky with the shower’s radiant point, the place from which the meteors appear to diverge, directly overhead. We should lower our expectations, however, for although moonlight is not a problem this year, most of us contend with light pollution and the radiant does not stand overhead.
Even so, observable rates of 20-40 per hour make for an impressive display and, unlike for the rival Geminid shower in December, we don’t have to freeze for the privilege. Indeed, some people enjoy group meteor parties, with would-be observers reclining to observe different parts of the sky and calling out “meteor!” each time they spot one. Target the night of 12th-13th for any party, though rates may still be respectable between the 9th and 15th.
The shower takes its name from the fact that its radiant point lies in the northern part of the constellation Perseus, see the north map, and climbs from about 30° high in the north-north-east as darkness falls to very high in the east before dawn. Note that Perseids fly in all parts of the sky – it is just their paths that point back to the radiant.
Records of the shower date back to China in AD 36 and it is sometimes called the Tears of St Lawrence after the saint who was martyred on 10 August AD 258, though it seems this title only dates from the nineteenth century.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh change this month from 05:17/21:20 BST on the 1st to 06:15/20:10 on the 31st. The Moon is at last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, at first quarter on the 18th and full on the 26th.
A partial solar eclipse on the 11th is visible from the Arctic, Greenland, Scandinavia and north-eastern Asia. Observers in Scotland north of a line from North Uist to the Cromarty Firth see a thin sliver of the Sun hidden for just a few minutes at about 09:45 BST. Our best place to be is Shetland but even in Lerwick the eclipse lasts for only 43 minutes with less than 2% of the Sun’s disk hidden at 09:50. To prevent serious eye damage, never look directly at the Sun.
Vega in Lyra is the brightest star overhead at nightfall and marks the upper right corner of the Summer Triangle it forms with Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila. Now that the worst of the summer twilight is behind us, we have a chance to glimpse the Milky Way as it flows through the Triangle on its way from Sagittarius in the south to Auriga and the star Capella low in the north. Other stars of note include Arcturus in Bootes, the brightest star in our summer sky, which is sinking in the west at the map times as the Square of Pegasus climbs in the east.
Of the quartet of planets in our evening sky, two have already set by our map times. The first and brightest of these is Venus which stands only 9° high in the west at Edinburgh’s sunset on the 1st and sets itself 68 minutes later. By the 31st, these numbers change to 4° and 35 minutes, so despite its brilliance at magnitude -4.2 to -4.4, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot as an evening star. It is furthest east of the Sun (46°) on the 17th.
Jupiter remains conspicuous about 10° high in the south-west as darkness falls and sets in the west-south-west just before the map times. Edging eastwards in Libra, it dims slightly from magnitude -2.1 to -1.9 and slips 0.6° north of the double star Zubenelgenubi on the 15th. A telescope shows it to be 36 arcseconds wide when it lies below-right of the Moon on the 17th.
The two planets low in the south at our map times are Mars, hanging like a prominent orange beacon only some 7° high in south-western Capricornus, and Saturn which is a shade higher above the Teapot of Sagittarius almost 30° to Mars’ right. Mars stood at opposition on 27 July and is at its closest to the Earth (57.6 million km) four days later. A planet-wide dust storm has hidden much of the surface detail on its small disk which shrinks during August from 24 to 21 arcseconds as its distance increases to 67 million km. Although Mars dims from magnitude -2.8 to -2.1, so it remains second only to Venus in brilliance. Catch the Moon near Saturn on the 20th and 21st and above Mars on the 24th.
Finally, we cannot overlook Mercury which is a morning star later in the period. Between the 22nd and 31st, it brightens from magnitude 0.8 to -0.7, rises more than 90 minutes before the Sun and stands around 7° high in the east-north-east forty minutes before sunrise. It is furthest west of the Sun (18°) on the 26th.
Diary for 2018 August
Times are BST
4th 19h Last quarter
9th 01h Mercury in inferior conjunction on Sun’s near side
11th 11h New moon and partial solar eclipse
13th 02h Peak of Perseids meteor shower
14th 15h Moon 6° N of Venus
17th 12h Moon 5° N of Jupiter
17th 19h Venus furthest E of Sun (46°)
18th 09h First quarter
21st 11h Moon 2.1° N of Saturn
23rd 18h Moon 7° N of Mars
26th 13h Full moon
26th 22h Mercury furthest W of Sun (18°)
28th 11h Mars stationary (motion reverses from W to E)
This is a slightly revised version, with added diary, of Alan’s article published in The Scotsman on July 31st 2018, with thanks to the newspaper for permission to republish here.
Spectacular solar eclipse on the 20th
The two brightest planets are now well placed for viewing in our evening sky, but it is another celestial spectacle that grabs our attention during March. The solar eclipse on the 20th is visible as a deep partial eclipse across Scotland, with the morning daylight dimming noticeably as 93% or more of the Sun’s diameter is obscured by the Moon.
It is vital to stress at the outset that serious eye damage can result if we view the Sun directly through binoculars or a telescope. One safe option is to use a pair of inexpensive eclipse glasses. Another is to use a pinhole or one side of a pair of binoculars to project the Sun’s image onto a white card. It is also possible to buy “astro solar safety film” that covers the objective (Sun-facing) side of your binoculars or telescope to drastically reduce the Sun’s light and heat to an acceptable level.
For Edinburgh, where 94% of the Sun’s diameter is obscured, this is the deepest eclipse since 29 June 1927 when 98% of the Sun was covered. We must wait until 23 September 2090 for the next deeper one at 95%.
Travel north and westwards from Edinburgh and the obscuration becomes even greater. Specifically, Dumfries sees 93% obscuration, Glasgow and Aberdeen, like Edinburgh, have 94%, while Inverness has 96% and Kirkwall, Lerwick and Stornoway enjoy 97%. London, for comparison, has 87%. Further afield, a partial eclipse is visible as far south as northern Africa and eastwards to Mongolia.
If we continue onwards another 240km from Scotland into the northern Atlantic we reach the edge of the path across the Earth’s surface from which the eclipse is total. That path, up to 487km wide, begins to the south of Greenland and curves north-eastwards to cross the Faroe Islands and Svalbard and end at the North Pole where the Sun sits on the horizon.
Only from within this path of totality will the Sun’s dazzling surface, its photosphere, be completely hidden, and its tenuous outer atmosphere, the corona, spring into view; sadly, we will not see the corona from Scotland. Totality lasts for up to 2 minutes 47 seconds from the centre of the path, but for only about 2 minutes from the Faroe Islands which lie away from the centre.
For Edinburgh, the eclipse begins at 08:30 on the 20th as the Moon’s disk begins to encroach from the Sun’s right hand side. just above the 3 o’clock position. Mid-eclipse occurs at 09:35 when the Sun appears as a slender sickle with its horns pointing upwards. The event ends when the Moon’s disk leaves the Sun’s left limb at 10:43. These times vary a little, becoming later as you go north and eastwards; for Lerwick, for example, they are some eight minutes later.
At mid-eclipse as seen from Edinburgh, the Sun stands 25° high in the south-east. Given a clear sky, it may well be possible to spot the planet Venus as it stands 34° to the left of the Sun and 5° lower in the sky.
The eclipse occurs only 13 hours before the Sun crosses northwards over the equator at 22:45 on that day, the moment of the vernal equinox.
Sunrise/sunset times for Edinburgh vary from 07:05/17:46 GMT on the 1st to 06:57/19:48 BST (05:47/18:48 GMT) on the 31st, after we set our clocks forward to British Summer Time on the 29th. Full moon on the 5th is followed by last quarter on the 13th, new moon (and the eclipse) on the 20th and first quarter on the 27th.
Venus, dazzling and unmistakable at magnitude -3.9 to -4.0, stands in our western sky at nightfall and sinks to set more than three hours after the Sun. Telescopically, it swells from 12 to 14 arcseconds and its gibbous phase changes from 86% to 78% sunlit. Mars, much fainter at magnitude 1.3 and a mere 4 arcseconds wide, lies 3.5° below-right of Venus on the 1st but their separation increases to 17° by the month’s end as Mars drops lower into the twilight.
Orion stands in the south at nightfall at present, but is sinking into the west by our star map times as the conspicuous planet Jupiter climbs from the east at nightfall to dominate our southern sky. Edging westwards in Cancer a few degrees to the east of the Praesepe star cluster (use binoculars), it lies above-left of the Moon on the 2nd and again on the 29th. Although Jupiter dims slightly from magnitude -2.5 to -2.3 as its diameter shrinks from 44 to 42 arcseconds, it remains the target of choice for telescope-users while binoculars show the changing positions of the four main moons.
Mercury lies much too low in our morning twilight to be glimpsed from Scotland. Saturn, though, is the brightest object low in the south before dawn. Rising in the south-east in the early hours, it climbs to pass 15° high on Edinburgh’s meridian at 05:51 on the 1st and two hours earlier by the month’s end.
Moving hardly at all against the stars, Saturn is less than 2° above and left of the double star Graffias in Scorpius and 8° above-right of the distinctive red supergiant Antares. The latter pulsates a little near magnitude 1.0 and is noticeably fainter than the planet which improves from magnitude 0.5 to 0.3. Viewed telescopically, its disk is 17 arcseconds wide and the rings are 39 arcseconds wide with their north face tipped 25° towards us. Catch Saturn 2° below and left of the Moon on the 12th.