Today is the day for meteors! If you were stuck indoors or in the city last night, you must get outside to a dark area away from city lights tonight. The meteors will start shooting as soon as the sun’s light fades enough.
While you’re out looking for shooting stars, you might want to look for some constellations. If you are perfectly happy just zoning out and only paying attention when a star shoots, okay. If the time between meteors gets a little long, see if you can find some constellations. Then you’ll be pleasantly surprised when the next meteor shoots.
Three constellations are most useful because they will point you to where the most meteors will occur. The graphic depicts the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) at about 9 pm in Arkansas. The two stars at the end of the dipper point directly to the North Star which is at the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor). Keep on going in a straight line and you’ll run into Cassiopeia, who looks like a flattened letter W. Then still on the straight line, go just past Cassiopeia and you’ll be at the center of the meteor shower. Three easy and useful constellations.
Since its August, if you are out about 9-10 pm in Arkansas, you’ll see the constellation which dominates the summer sky: Scorpius. It is almost due South at 9 pm and just above the horizon.
Most people think Scorpius looks like a scorpion. It used to look even more like one. The earliest astronomers included two claws which the Romans severed and made into Libra. Find it in the southern sky and see if you think it was a better scorpion before the Romans messed with it.
Personally, I think it looks more like a lawn chair now. And that fits since it dominates the summer sky. So you can also call it the lawn chair constellation.
If it’s a clear night and you have good eyes or a telescope, you’ll see the red star Antares at the heart of the lawn chair/Scorpion. Antares is a red super-giant and it is a first magnitude star. There is only one other red super-giant that is this bright and it’s on the opposite side of the sky, in the constellation that dominates the winter sky — the star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion. Both stars are about 500 light years away in opposite directions so we lie just about halfway between the two.
Scorpion’s stinger brought about the death of Orion the Mighty Hunter. So when the gods gave the Scorpion and Orion their final resting places in the heavens, they made sure to place the archenemies at opposite ends of the sky. That’s why you can never see these two constellations in the same sky together. To this day, Orion only rises in the east after Scorpius sets in the southwest, and the reverse in also true: Scorpius won’t rise in the southeast until Orion’s departure in the west.
From either the Northern or the Southern hemisphere, July is the month for Scorpius the Scorpion to reign supreme and for Orion to take his place in the underworld, though you can see Orion in the East beginnning about 4 in the morning in August. But six months before or after – in the month of January – Orion has his turn to lord over the nighttime sky.,
Since it’s still August, you won’t see Orion at night, but you may see heat lightning. July and August are great months for heat lightning in Arkansas. Though there may not be a cloud in the sky, something lights up the sky near the horizon. The average person assumes that since it occurs only in hot months, it has something to do with the heat. Nearly all scientists disagree. They say it is far-off lightning reflected from the haze of humid summer nights. They say the lightning can be as far as 100 miles away.
Whether you believe the scientists or not you can still call it heat lightning, just as you can call Scorpios the lawn chair constellation. No matter, it will still be fun watching the meteors, the constellations and the heat lightning tonight.