August may be the month for meteor watchers.
The well-known and quite reliable Perseid meteor shower peaks in the early morning of Aug. 12. The waxing crescent moon drops below the horizon soon after midnight, providing dark skies for this display of up to 50 to 80 meteors an hour. The meteors appear to radiate from the constellation Perseus, which appears on the northeast horizon also right after midnight.
Bright Venus travels along the western horizon through Leo into Virgo through August about 10:30 p.m. Jupiter, Mars and Mercury line up in the east at dawn on the first of the month, but by mid-month Mercury vanishes into the twilight. On Aug. 4, the three planets are joined by a sliver of the waning crescent moon. Mars and Jupiter continue their march through Gemini, and Mars can be found right in the Beehive in Cancer early in September.
Saturn rises in the east at 1:40 p.m. Thursday, setting right after midnight on Friday. On the night of Aug. 12, Saturn is within 3 degrees of the waxing crescent moon.
Comet ISON is approaching the orbit of Mars, and will reach perihelion (its point closest to the sun) on Nov. 28, a million miles from the core of the sun. The potential for ISON to become “the comet of the century” is still up in the air.
This year was expected to be the Solar Max, the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle, but solar activity is relatively low. Sunspot numbers are well below their values in 2011, and this solar cycle (number 24) is so far the weakest in more than 50 years.
At the same time, weak solar cycles have been known to produce very strong flares. The strongest solar storm in recorded history occurred during a relatively weak solar cycle like the present one. Some solar physicists believe Solar Cycle 24’s peak is has not yet occurred, so stay tuned — 2013 isn’t over yet.
Q: What are stars made of? — D.T., Canton
A: Stars are about three-fourths burning hydrogen (the lightest element) and one-fourth helium (the second lightest element) and a trace of heavier elements.
The amount of heavier elements found in a star can indicate the star’s age. Actually, the elements present in the entire universe closely reflect that which we see in stars, and in the same proportion.
The Hoover-Price Planetarium is presenting Pluto Again? through Sept. 8. Since 1930, Pluto has been the problem child of the solar system, and was classified as a dwarf planet in 2005. Astronomers continue to find new moons of this little sphere. Should we once again reclassify Pluto?
The program will be shown at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Labor Day, there will also be weekday showings at 1 p.m. The planetarium is included with admission to the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton. Call 330-455-7043 or see www.mckinleymuseum.org.
David L. Richards is director of the Hoover-Price Planetarium at the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, 800 McKinley Monument Drive NW, Canton. He can be reached at 330-455-7043 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.