Summer Sky Highlights What's Missing This season's astronomical highlights are about what won't be visible in the night sky. Astronomer Paul Rao discusses what he describes as "the eclipse of the century," Jupiter's mysterious missing moons, the vanishing rings of Saturn and the forthcoming Perseid meteor shower.
NPR logo

Summer Sky Highlights What's Missing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Summer Sky Highlights What's Missing

Summer Sky Highlights What's Missing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Paul Raeburn filling in for Ira Flatow.

Well, summer is almost upon us. Maybe you will soon be lucky enough to be headed to the beach or the mountains for a vacation, somewhere where you'll have a nice dark night sky. And just so you don't spend all of your time with your head buried in a Danielle Steele novel, or any of it perhaps, we thought we'd tell you what you might see if you turn your gaze towards the heavens during the next couple of months. We won't make you work too hard. Grab a lawn chair, an nice iced tea, lean way back and look up.

Joining me to tell you what you might see is my guest Joe Rao, a meteorologist at the News 12 network. He's also an associate at New York's Hayden Planetarium, and he writes columns for The New York Times,, Natural History Magazine and others. Thanks for talking with us today, Joe.

Mr. JOE RAO (Meteorologist, News 12 Network): Well, thank you very much for inviting me to come on this afternoon, talk about the starry skies in the coming months ahead, Paul.

RAEBURN: If you have a summer astronomy question you would like to ask Joe, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255 that's 1-800-989-talk. And if you want more information about what we're talking about this hour go to our Web site at where you'll find links to our topic. So tell us Joe, what is the big celestial event of the summer?

Mr. RAO: Well the big celestial event of the summer unfortunately is going to be out of view for those of us who live on this side of the Earth, the North American and or western hemisphere. The big event is the great total solar eclipse that's going to be occurring on the 22nd of next month, July. The path of that particular eclipse, the region where the sun is going to appear completely covered by the passing new moon, stretches across portions of India, China, just to the south of Japan across the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. I hope I pronounced that correctly, actually passes over Iwo Jima before moving out over the central Pacific Ocean and moving off of the surface of the Earth, the shadow of the moon will, at the end of the eclipse.

RAEBURN: So nothing, no chance for us unless we want to go to Iwo Jima or something?

Mr. RAO: Well, you know, a lot of people who are into astronomy have known about this eclipse for a very long time. It's a special eclipse because of the duration of totality. The sun is going to be obscured by the moon, totally obscured, for just over six and a half minutes at its peak. And that is going to make this the longest total solar eclipse available on the Earth until the year 2132. And so many people have waited many years I think to make their plans. And many folks are going to be heading toward China, India or on cruise ships to position themselves again within the path of the total eclipse. And they're going to be literally, because especially it passes over China, tens of millions of people who are going to be in the zone of the phase of the total eclipse.

In fact this is going to pass - the shadow is going to pass over four of the 10 largest cities in China, including Yushan and Shanghai. So there are going to be a lot of folks, and they've got their fingers crossed I am sure, that that particular day July 22nd will be clear so that they'll all be able to see this fantastic sight. So even though it's not going to be visible unfortunately from our part of the world. In fact the United States is in kind of a total eclipse drought. We have not seen…

(Soundbite of Laughter)

Mr. RAO: …we have not seen from the mainland United States a total solar eclipse since February of 1979 but our time is coming. It's getting closer. The next total eclipse of the sun over the United States, the continental United States will be, mark your calendar, August 21st, 2017. If you think about it that's only what, about eight years away.

RAEBURN: I was going to say, yeah, how many years, days, hours and minutes is that Joe?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAEBURN: I wouldn't be surprised if you knew that actually. You're sort of virtual encyclopedia of astronomical events.

Mr. RAO: Well, you know, there are, again, a lot of people out there who, you know, mark their calendars from an astronomical sense. They look at events, astronomical events, events that are not readily available or accessible in the immediate future. And they look, you know, down the road five, 10, 15 years and say, okay I'm going to be here, I'm going to be there, I'm going to be doing this and that on specific days, you know, many, many years from now. And just as I said a lot of people had been waiting for this big eclipse next month. And I'm sure there are a lot of folks who don't have the funds, especially in this poor economy right now to go to China or go to India or on a cruise ship, who say, okay I'll miss this one but I'm definitely not going to miss that one on August 21st, 2017, that literally passes right across perhaps our backyard.

RAEBURN: All right. Well, here's our problem now. We promised our American listeners anyway that they'd be able to sit in a lawn chair, you know, to their summer novel and look up and see something. So what have we got for us stateside?

Mr. RAO: Okay, well, if you are an early riser you might want to get up in the pre-dawn hours, say around 3, 4, 5 a.m. and look over into the East, Northeastern sky. You'll see our old friend, the planet Venus. I say our old friend because it was glimmering and was a brilliant evening star for many, many months during this past winter and early spring. It's now transitioned to a morning object. You could see it just before sunrise and it has a companion. It has had a companion since early May, a much smaller, much dimmer object hovering nearby with kind of a yellowish-orange tint and that's the planet Mars. These two planets for reasons which I cannot get into here…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAO: …because it would take too long had been hovering next to each other since early May and will continue to do so into the early part of July and kind of like a double planet if you will. So, if you're keen to get up in the early hours of the morning, again just an hour or two before sun up, you can see that. And of course, in August, the featured summer event, most every summer, is the famed Perseid meteor shower…

RAEBURN: Before we get to that, on Venus and Mars, now they are - they look next to each other from here. They're not actually close to each other.

Mr. RAO: That's absolutely correct. It's an effected perspective. Venus is actually the closer of the two planets but because of our position in the solar system we are looking at Venus and then beyond Venus if you will, along the same sight of line here you can also see Mars. Mars is apparently much, much dimmer as it usually is when you compare it to something so brilliant like Venus. But interestingly in the coming months Venus is going to be turning over toward the part of the sky where the sun is.

It will become less and less prominent later on in the year. In the meantime Mars will be getting closer to the Earth and when we get to the beginning of next year, the early part of next year, when Mars reaches a point in its orbit relative to the Earth in what we call opposition, it will be shining like a very brilliant yellowish orange star with not twinkling in our wintertime sky - January, February, March - just after sundown. So, Venus will become less and less prominent toward the end of the year and Mars will be ramping it up. But right now, Venus is by far the brighter of the two.

RAEBURN: Let's take a call from Bryan(ph) in North Carolina. Bryan, you're on SCIENCE FRIDAY. Go ahead.

BRYAN (Caller): Hi. I've seen in a calendar, I think, sometime in the last year that perhaps Mars was going to be viewable almost as big as the moon sometime next year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAO: Oh dear, you're one of the countless and I might even go so far as to say millions of people on the Internet who has received the infamous Mars hoax email…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAO: …which has been running. In 2003, Mars made a historically close approach to the Earth. But ever since 2003, every summer and it's happening again this year for the sixth summer in a row - this email circulates giving people the impression that when you go outside at the end of August you're going to be able to see Mars looming in the sky as large as the full moon. And this is absolutely an untruth. If Mars was in fact in apparent size that large it would only be about twice the distance of the Moon from the Earth, about a half a million miles away, and then we would all be in big, big trouble. If you've ever seen that email or if you've received it, do not forward it to everybody in your mail book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAO: Just delete it because it's an absolute untruth.

RAEBURN: Or better yet, send an email around telling them what you heard on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. RAO: Absolutely.

RAEBURN: Congratulations Bryan on being one of the lucky millions to receive the email. Thanks for calling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRYAN: That's a bummer.

RAEBURN: Yeah, that's a bummer. It would be nice.

BRYAN: Thanks.

RAEBURN: So Joe, you were going to tell us about the Perseid's which I think is in August. Is that right? That happens to be my personal favored astronomical event.

Mr. RAO: Well, the Perseid's are a favorite of many people. It's probably the most beloved meteor shower of the year. There have been, of course, over the years others that have had greater intensity, like the Leonids, about a decade ago, but the Perseids are the Old Faithful, the old reliable. They come back every year. They are the dross, they are the debris left behind by the comet Swift-Tuttle, which takes about 130-some-odd years to go around the sun.

Every time the comet goes around the sun, it leaves behind a river of rubble. The earth just happens, in its orbit around the sun, to intersect that river of rubble, which…

RAEBURN: River of rubble. I like that.

Mr. RAO: And this river of rubble consists basically of particles the size of copier toner up to about pebbles and sand grains, and when the earth rams into this debris field, every year in the middle part of August, we see streaks of light that apparently shoot across the sky, dart across the sky, giving the impression that stars are falling out of their fixed place in the heaven. But really, what we're seeing is the end point of this debris as it rams through the atmosphere at 30 or 40 miles per second and lights up or heats up the air along its path. It produces this streak effect.

The Perseids are the favorite because many of the meteors that appear with this shower are quite bright, and also they're reliable. Some meteor showers are good some years and not so good other years, but they're fairly reliable, the Perseids are, producing, under perfect conditions, dark, clear skies as upwards to maybe 50 or 60 meteors per hour.

We have one problem this year, and that will be the moon, which unfortunately will be in the sky when the shower reaches its peak on the nights of the 11th and 12th of August, in the wee hours of the morning, actually, just before sunrise.

If you're out and about looking for shooting stars this year, the moon is going to be a bit of a hindrance because it's going to be at the last-quarter phase and kind of bright in the sky. So some of the fainter streaks may not be immediately visible, but if you're out and about with, you know - and I always find it best to go and watch this with friends.

If you get a bunch of friends together one of those two nights, the night of the 11th or the night of the 12th, and just lie out on a lounge chair or blankets or whatever, look up, maybe you might want to chit-chat, maybe have a little music in the background, and every once in a while, you'll see one of these streakers. And depending upon how large the piece of debris from that comet is as it enters the earth's atmosphere, you could see anything from a little streak like to maybe something like almost like a Roman candle for a few brief moment, blazing across the sky as well.

They always put on a good show, and if the weather is clear, hopefully they'll do so again this year.

RAEBURN: So by streakers, we're talking about meteorites, not some other kind of streakers. We don't want to mislead anybody here about…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAO: Exactly.

RAEBURN: …what you're going to see in the sky. All right, we have just a few seconds left. Tell us what we should know about any of the other planets. Anything happening?

Mr. RAO: Well very quickly, if you have a telescope - and a lot of people buy telescopes to look at all kinds of great things, usually when you see these telescope ads, they're very seductive. They tell you look at the beautiful rings of Saturn.

Well, I must tell you that when we get into August of this year, and if you do find Saturn in the sky and train your telescope on it, you won't see any rings because the rings are turning edge-on to the earth in early September, and the sunlight will not be falling on those rings during most of August, so…

RAEBURN: Joe, we've got to run. Thanks for being us. It's been fascinating. Joe is a meteorologist at the News 12 Network. He publishes an astronomy newsletter. If you'd like to subscribe, email him at We'll be right back after this short break.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.