Monday, August 9, 2010

Those Dog Days of Summer

HOT DAMN! Summer is coming to an end and the perfect days of Autumn are just around the corner! It's official, because the Perseid meteor showers are upon us and Orion is here!

Every year, toward the end of July, I begin to watch for the constellation of Orion to rise above the horizon just before dawn. This year I've been disappointed; too much light, too many trees, buildings, etc. interfering with my line of sight. But this morning, FINALLY, I spotted the red star Betelgeuse (think Beatlejuice) and followed it to the rest of the asterism (a "constellation" within the bigger constellation). There he was, dim for sure, but THERE! And the bright "dog star" was just barely visible above a line of trees. It was a perfect birthday gift for my DH, and I called him outside to see it with me. (It's one of those big birthdays, you know, one of the ones that ends in a zero; a big birthday calls for a big special present like Orion!)

We're into the dog days of late summer; Autumn is just around the corner. Did I already say that? I'm giddy with excitement...

In olden times the “dog days” of late summer (corresponding with the appearance of the “dog star” Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, just before dawn) were popularly believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies" according to Brady’s Clavis Calendarium, 1813.

Well, it has been a kind of a phrensied year, hasn't it?

Orion is one of the most conspicuous, and most recognizable constellations in the night sky, big and bright and distinct. Lots of people look at it and think it's the Big Dipper, but that constellation is in a different part of the sky, can be seen all year round and isn't quite as recognizable as Orion. Orion is a Winter constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, which makes it all the more special.

The bright red star (a red supergiant) that forms Orion's left shoulder is Betelgeuse. The name of this star means "The Armpit of the Central One" in Arabic, which shows that like many other constellations, Orion was recognized across many cultures. (His right shoulder is the bright white star Bellatrix.)

The three bright stars in a row that appear at an angle beneath Orion's "shoulders" make up the "Belt of Orion". Following a straight line through the belt will lead your eye to the red giant Aldebaran above Orion to the right and Sirius (the dog star) below Orion to your left. Descending from the 'belt' is a smaller line of three stars that make up Orion's sword. The central "star" of the sword is actually not a star at all, but the Great Orion Nebula (aka M42), one of the regions most studied by astronomers in the whole sky.

Orion's right knee is Rigel, a blue supergiant that is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. It pales in comparison to Sirius, but it's still danged bright.

From here on out, throughout the Autumn and Winter months, Orion will rise earlier each night, and be higher in the sky with each rising. By the end of Winter he will be getting ready to set in the southwestern sky when dawn arrives.

I always hate to see him go...

CATCH A FALLING STAR: Mark your calendar for the nights/mornings of August 11/12 and 12/13 if you want to see something spectacular! The Perseid meteor showers, which have been observed for at least 2,000 years, are associated with the comet Swift-Tuttle. Each year in August, the Earth passes through a cloud of the comet's debris. The resulting "shooting stars" can be seen all over the sky, but the best viewing opportunities will be across the northern hemisphere and 2010 should be a very good year.

The huge comet swings through the inner solar system every 133 years and leaves behind a trail of dust and gravel. When Earth passes through the debris, specks of comet-stuff hit the atmosphere at 140,000 miles per hour and disintegrate in flashes of light.

This year the shower peaks on August 12 and 13, and it promises to be one of the best displays of the year (weather permitting). If forecasts are correct, the shower should produce a peak display of at least 80 meteors per hour on the day. A waxing crescent moon will set before the shower becomes active, setting a perfect stage for meteor watching -- weather permitting. The best time to look is during the darkest hours before dawn on Friday morning, Aug. 13th, when most observers will see dozens of Perseids per hour. Get up early (or stay up late), go up on your roof or your RV's observation deck (if you're lucky enough to be in Rocky Point), have a party with your friends, set a lawn chair outside, lie down in the sand, whatever-- and just relax and wait. You won't be disappointed!

And since you're already up, wait just a little bit longer and you'll get the double whammy of seeing Orion throw his leg across the horizon in the east-southeast just before the sky begins to lighten.

The dog star will rise in another few minutes. Happy almost Autumn!

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