Meteors And A Trio Of Planets Highlight Night Sky

For the next few weeks, Venus, Saturn and Mars move closer together in the night sky, culminating in what astronomers call a "trio" in early August. The Hayden Planetarium's Joe Rao describes where to find the planets, and other night sky sights to look out for this summer.

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IRA FLATOW, Host:

Today is the summertime, beginning of the summer. It's a holiday, long holiday weekend. Maybe you're heading to the beach or the mountain, somewhere far from the bright city lights, where the skies are darker and you can actually see the stars. Perhaps you brought your iPad with you. You can get some incredible new apps to help you find all those heavenly bodies you've been looking for.

Here to give us a heads up on what you might find in the summer sky this July and August is Joe Rao. He is a meteorologist with the News 12 Network and associate at the New York Hayden Planetarium and a columnist for The New York Times and Space.com. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Joe.

JOE RAO: How are you doing, Ira? Happy summer.

FLATOW: Thank you. Happy to you. Summer is a great time for astronomy.

RAO: It is a great time. You hit it right on the head here, because there are a lot of folks who are listening right now who are city dwellers or who live in the inner suburbs, so to speak. And they get their two weeks off from work and take the family up to a place, let's say, that they are not normally accustomed to going to, the country or some place where there aren't too many lights. And that's when they discover the sky.

In fact, it's very funny, people who, let's say, go camping and they look up at the nighttime sky in the summertime, the comment usually is my goodness, it's like being inside of a planetarium.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAO: And it's true. You get to see the stars when you're far away from those bright lights. And a lot of folks discover the sky during the months of July and August when high leisure time is occurring. At this particular time at the Hayden Planetarium, I'm taking calls almost every day from folks who are discovering a strange, bright, white light in the Western sky right after sundown, for a couple - three hours after sundown, and wondering what that is.

And that object is the so-called evening star, the planet Venus, which shines so very, very brilliantly and will be with us all through the summer and on into the early fall, dominating our Western sky. And as we progress through the summers - it's going to be very interesting, Ira. We're going to have what I might call a celestial summit meeting. Because Venus is all by herself right now, but come about four or five weeks down the road from now, it's going to be joined by two other planets in the same area of the sky. They'll be much fainter. Venus is by far the brightest of the planets.

But come the early part of August, first week of August, you'll see two other objects close by to Venus. One will be with a yellowish-orange tinge, that will be the planet Mars, and the other, which will have kind of a yellowish-white or cream color, will be the planet Saturn. And you'll have three planets - what is called by some a planetary trio, because we're going to have three of them - kind of scrunched them to a little spot in the sky during the first week of August and should make for a very picturesque scene for anyone who's looking in the Western sky, let's see, about an hour or two after sundown.

FLATOW: You also write in your booklet "Skyway, Inc." that if you're going to - if you want to take a cruise this year, you could catch a total eclipse of the sun.

RAO: Oh, yes, indeed. Well, if you're going to be in the South Pacific Ocean a week from this coming Sunday, July 11th, there's going to be, indeed, a total eclipse of the sun. This is - unlike the one that we had last year, which passed across India and China and were seen by tens - or experienced by tens of millions of people, this one maybe experienced by tens of thousands.

You've - in fact, the number of people who actually experience this total eclipse coming up may fit into Yankee Stadium, and there may still be some seats in the stadium to spare. And virtually, the entire eclipse path is going to unfortunately pass over the South Pacific Ocean. So the only way you're going to see it is if you're on an eclipse cruise...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

RAO: ...positioning yourself properly, or if you're one of the lucky individuals who, on that particular day, will be on - of all places, one of the most isolated and remote spots on Earth - Easter Island.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

RAO: Because the big path of totality for this particular eclipse is going to pass squarely right over Easter Island, four minutes and 45 seconds. And, Ira...

FLATOW: Yeah.

RAO: ...what a photo op...

FLATOW: Wow.

RAO: ...to get the corona of the sun above one of those giant statues looking skyward. That's what a lot of folks are there for who are lucky enough to be on the island of that day. And, hopefully, the weather will cooperate so that they will be able to get that view.

FLATOW: And those of us not lucky enough to do that, we'll also have - always have a good fallback and that's the Perseid meteor shower, right?

RAO: Always a wonderful site in the summertime sky, the old faithful, if you will, of meteor showers because it comes every year. There are some meteor showers that are very good some years and not-so- good other years. The Perseids are the exception to that. And virtually, every year, you can count on this display occurring. It - we'll be peaking this year on the night of August 11th, into the wee hours of the morning of August 12th, and again on the night of the 12th into the morning of the 13th. If you're out any of those two nights - and what I like to do is I like to get together with other people and have a meteor party, or as I like to say, Ira, shower with a friend, so to speak - a meteor shower, that is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAO: You look skyward, look up into the sky, keep your eyes - it doesn't really matter if you don't know the constellations. A lot of people say, well which way do I look? What star pattern do I look at? It doesn't matter with the Perseids. You just get one of those long lounge chairs that you would - might use if you go to the beach, lie down, maybe throw a little light covering over you and maybe have a jug of coffee or something - a stimulant to keep you awake. And you look up into the sky, keep your eyes moving around. Don't stare at any one place. Just keep looking all over.

And pretty soon, you'll see a streak in the sky. And mentally, you can trace the streak back to where it came from. A minute or two later, another one will come by. Trace that mentally backwards also, until you see a couple of them reaching back to a specific pattern of stars.

FLATOW: Hmm.

RAO: A third one will come by and hopefully intersect in the same place the first two did. And that intersection point is called the radiant. It appears that they're all coming out from there.

FLATOW: Right.

RAO: And with the Perseids, what makes them popular - besides the fact they come during the summer when everybody is out and have some leisure time to look up - they're very - they're usually quite bright, quite distinct. And they usually appear if you had a nice dark sky, free of any bright lights, you can count maybe as many as 40 or 50 shooting stars during the course of an hour.

So every once in a while, once in a great while, you get what's called an outstandingly bright meteor, like a fireball, or one that explodes along its path called a bolide. Those, literally, are like snapping a strobe, and they have to really(ph) cast shadows.

FLATOW: We're talking about the summer sky this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR, talking with Joe Rao. One of the things I've noticed: I bought an iPad recently, and there are some really nifty, nifty sky tools there. I'm going to just mention a few of them - something called Solar Walk and Star Walk. There's also the Pocket Universe, on - and I wrote about on my blog on sciencefriday.com and somebody suggested the Google Sky Map and Android device.

There are some really incredibly gorgeous photos on here. And these things are not only just great pictures, but you can hold them up to the sky and they move because they have a, you know, sort of a GPS system in them. And as you move, the sky moves with you on them, and they look identical, and it really helps you see what you're looking at - tell you what you're looking in the sky.

RAO: Its' incredible. I remember when I was 10 years old - many, many, many years ago. And I remember in Sky and Telescope magazine, they were advertising a device which was, if you look through it and if you slide a cardboard image of a constellation with some holes in it and you held it up to the sky and somehow, you were supposed to line the image up with the actual stars in the sky. I mean, it didn't help whatsoever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAO: But the stuff that's available now to the neophyte, to the kid, for example, at 10, 12 years old. As you just said for yourself, Ira, a GPS in the sky, just point it to a star, and these devices will tell you what it is, or a fuzzy object you might see. It might be the Andromeda Galaxy. Not only does it tell you what it is, but in some of these cases, they actually give you a description of what you're looking at.

FLATOW: Yeah.

RAO: It's absolutely amazing, the technology we have available today.

FLATOW: And to sky watch, you don't need a telescope. Right, Joe? You can use your naked eye or a pair of binoculars.

RAO: Absolutely. I talk to people who say, well, I'd like to get into astronomy, but I just don't have the bucks to buy a big telescope or - you don't need that, folks. Just go outside, enjoy the nighttime sky. And there are - you go to your library and pick out a good star book - probably one of the best books, I think, that you can use to learn the constellations - it's been around, it's a classic - it's been around now for about 60 years, was a book that was written by the gentleman who invented "Curious George," Hans Augusto Rey, H.A. Rey, and he wrote a book called "The Stars: A New Way to See Them."

And if you get this book - it's put out by Houghton Mifflin in Massachusetts. You get that book and you just read it, study it, and you'll learn within a few weeks the constellations and the star patterns, because the star patterns in that book are exactly, are pretty well exactly what they're supposed to be up in the nighttime sky.

FLATOW: All right Joe, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And have a good holiday weekend in looking up at the sky with you.

RAO: Well, a couple of hours ago, we were exactly halfway through 2010, Ira. I want to wish you and all our listeners out there a happy half year.

FLATOW: There you go. Joe Rao is a meteorologist with the News 12 Network, also an associate at New York's Hayden Planetarium and columnist for New York Times and Space.com.

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