Perseids, Solar Eclipse, Upcoming Celestial Shows

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By now, most of us know The Great American Solar Eclipse will be Monday afternoon, August 21, but this is the weekend to start marveling at the heavens, as the month’s first fabulous celestial event takes place at night!

The annual Perseids Meteor Shower (pronounced per-see’-uhds) peaks this Friday and Saturday, August 11 and 12, although this year brings both good and bad news. The good is that Perseid predictions call for a dazzling shower, with 80 to 100 meteors an hour; and it falls on a weekend that is perfect for a family adventure despite the peak time of 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. The bad is that the gibbous moon rises around 11 p.m., meaning from a primarily dark location you may see just 12 to 25 meteors per hour. To maximize this, watch from an isolated area, away from urban light pollution, with the north end of Fort Myers Beach near Bowditch Point Park a superior spot. Look to the northeast, with the radiant between the Cassiopeia and Perseus constellations.

The path of the August 21, 2017 Total Solar Eclipse. Photo courtesy of NASA.

On August 21, The Great American Eclipse takes center stage! This will be the first total solar eclipse to traverse diagonally across the entire country, from the Pacific Northwest through the heartland down to South Carolina, in 99 years. The last total eclipse in the United States was in 1979, with the last visible in Florida in 1970. Watch this one close, because the next U.S. one is not until April 8, 2024, when it will come up from Texas through the Midwest to Maine.

The eclipse, which will be seen as only a partial eclipse in Florida, begins over Fort Myers Beach at 1:21 p.m., will reach its greatest intensity at 2:53 p.m. when the moon will cover 82% of the Sun, then gradually peals back until it ends at 4:16 p.m., for 2 hours and 55 minutes. Coverage will resemble a dark cloudy day, unless of course we naturally wind up with a dark cloudy day due to our traditional afternoon thunderstorms!

A Cosmic Coincidence

total solar eclipse, NASAA total solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and Sun, blotting out the Sun, with the moon casting its shadow upon the Earth. How can the moon that is 2,100 miles in diameter block out the 864,000-miles-in-diameter Sun? In a cosmic coincidence that may not exist anywhere else in the entire universe, the Sun is 400 times farther away from the Earth than the moon, and 400 times bigger than the moon, meaning that from Earth they appear the same size. A solar eclipse happens somewhere on our planet only about every 18 months, so the average person may only experience this natural spectacle a few times in their life.

But there is a danger, as you can severely damage your eyes or go blind unless you view the eclipse with protective gear. The best and easiest way to watch is to acquire a pair of “eclipse glasses” with the designation ISO12312-2 that provides safe filtering; you can purchase them directly for a few dollars at www.eclipseglasses.com, with a bulk rate as low as 50 cents each. As the event draws close, many pharmacies will sell them. Even with these, however, do not stare at the eclipse continuously for more than 3 minutes at any one time, and intermittently throughout the show.

milky way, star trails, from sanibel island
Milky Way with star trails. Photo by Michele Kalka

Those of a certain age recall viewing an eclipse using two pieces of cardboard, and this simple method still works. Grab two pieces of stiff white cardboard, though white paper plates will do, and put a small clean hole with a thumbtack, sharp pin, or needle in the middle of one piece. Stand with your back to the Sun and let it shine through the hole and onto the second piece of cardboard that serves as a screen, and you will see an inverted image of the Sun. If you move the screen further away from the cardboard with the pinhole, the image of the Sun will grow larger. If you move the screen closer, the image becomes brighter. If you make the hole too large, you will just have a shaft of sunlight instead of the image of the Sun. DO NOT Look Through the Pinhole at the Sun! For additional information on The Great American Eclipse, see eclipse2017.nasa.gov

Danger! Danger!

The following are unsafe ways to view an eclipse: dark sunglasses, neutral density or polarizing filters, smoked glass, unexposed or exposed film, CDs, DVDs, or anything that lacks the ISO number. Never look at a partially eclipsed sun through a camera, telescope or binoculars while using “eclipse glasses,” or the concentrated rays will instantly burn through the filter and injure your eyes. Viewed safely, with clear skies, The Great American Eclipse can provide the sight of a century!

In addition to the meteors and eclipse, three planets grace the night sky, with two in the evening and one early in the morning. As the Sun sets, look west to see the brilliant Jupiter that appears to be the brightest star in the Summer night. As August continues, Jupiter will move closer to the star Spica in the Virgo constellation, until it looks as though the two almost touch by the end of the month, as well as the planet sliding by the crescent moon on Friday the 25th.

Saturn and its magnificent rings are prime viewing in August, as it remains out most of the night. It is low in the southern sky, between Scorpius and Sagittarius, and encounters the moon on Tuesday the 29th. The dazzling Venus, however, dominates the dawn, rising in the east-northeast, with a razor-thin crescent moon coming close on Saturday morning, August 19th.

Of course, you do not need a special event to view the nighttime sky: From south to north, gaze at constellations such as Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, Cygnus, Lyra, The Big & Little Dippers, and Cassiopeia, along with The Summer Triangle straight up overhead. The August sky delivers, with or without having to wear any special viewing glasses!

 

Gary Mooney