The beginning of this month marks the halfway point of summer. The nights continue to get longer as we slowly approach fall, offering us more time under the stars and planets and other celestial wonders always happening above us.

This month is packed with more than its usual share of highlights, so spend as much time as you can enjoying, observing and understanding these events. All four of the brightest planets will grace our evening skies all month long. They will be nearly evenly spaced across the sky and all visible at the same time, which is quite unusual. Not only are they all visible at once, but all of them are also close to opposition, when they are at their best and closest to Earth.

The Perseid Meteor Shower will have optimal conditions this summer near new moon. You can expect about 50 meteors per hour under dark skies. As a bonus, another comet enters our field of view. This one is called 21P/Giacobini-Zinner and it returns every 6.5 years. It may brighten to naked-eye visibility, but you will probably need binoculars or a telescope to see it. A partial solar eclipse will happen over parts of northern Europe and Asia at new moon this month, since we are in an eclipse season again.

We begin our evening tour with Venus. Our sister planet continues to brighten as it is catching up with us in our orbits around the sun. It will reach greatest eastern elongation from the sun on the 17th. That means it will be exactly half-lit, similar to a last-quarter moon, but it will continue to get brighter and larger after that time even as it is getting less illuminated by the sun. Watch as Venus catches up with Spica in Virgo. The pair will be only a degree apart on the last day of the month half an hour after sunset low in the western evening sky.

Then continue along the ecliptic one constellation to the east and you will run into Jupiter in Libra. The King of the Planets is the farthest away from opposition of that great quartet of bright planets all visible at once all month long. Jupiter was at opposition back on May 10, so it is getting a little smaller and fainter now as we are leaving it farther behind in our respective orbits around the sun.

Be aware that we recently discovered 12 more moons of Jupiter while looking for new planets at the edge of our solar system. One of those moons is orbiting the planet in the opposite direction of a large group of moons orbiting farther out from Jupiter, so it will probably crash into one of those moons soon. All the new ones are just one to two miles across.

So we are up to 79 moons now, the most around any planet in our solar system. Juno is still getting great images and sounds from Jupiter and it should be there until 2021.

Then keep going another 25 degrees east along the ecliptic through Scorpius into Sagittarius and your eyes will land on Saturn. Just a month past opposition, the ringed planet is still in retrograde or westward motion. Notice that it will fall just short of reaching the beautiful Trifid and Lagoon Nebulae along one arm of the Milky Way just above the center of our galaxy, located 30,000 light years away. These two fuzzy patches of our sky are visible even without a telescope.

However, I recommend using a telescope or a good pair of binoculars to better appreciate these colorful stellar nurseries located about 5,000 light years away.

Then continue another 20 degrees or so into the neighboring constellation of Capricorn and you will encounter a most amazing spectacle. As Mars rises out of the ocean around sunset, it can almost be considered as a second sun, even though it is over 100 times smaller. Its remarkable golden-orange hue will be farther reddened by our atmosphere until it gets higher in our sky as the earth keeps rotating. At just 35.8 million miles away, Mars is closer, bigger and brighter now than it was any time since August 2003, when the red planet was at its best in 60,000 years, about the time modern humans started leaving Africa.

Mars will remain brighter than Jupiter all month long, which is also very unusual. The last time I looked at it through a telescope I saw some dark markings on its surface along with a hint of both polar ice caps. Try to catch some of these details soon before huge dust storms engulf those features. This is called a perihelic opposition because Mars is also closest to the sun at the same time it is closest to the Earth. Although Mars will reach its next opposition in just 26 months in October 2020, when we will also launch the next mission to Mars, it will not be as close as it is now until August 2287.

Catch as many Perseids as you can this month. Caused by Comet Swift-Tuttle, you could expect up to 50 meteors per hour at its peak during the early-morning hours of Sunday the 12th. This comet only returns once every 133 years, and it last returned in 1992. That means we will not have enhanced rates of meteors caused by the proximity of the actual comet, but at least there will be no moon to interfere with our viewing of one of nature’s great spectacles.

Watch as these tiny sand grain-sized pieces of comet dust burn up high in our atmosphere, leaving brilliant streaks of ionized light caused by their great speed of 40 miles per second, or twice the speed that we are orbiting the sun. Perseids can be seen anytime during this month, but they will peak on the 12th. If you can trace the meteor back to Perseus in the sky, rising about 11 p.m. in the Northeast, you know it was caused by this comet as we pass through its dust and debris trail every year.

A partial solar eclipse will happen at new moon this month over northern Europe and Asia. Only 75 percent of the sun will be covered at most, so it will be nothing like the uniquely American Total Solar eclipse of last summer. Seeing and photographing that eclipse gave me a much more real sense of where we are in the solar system, and the extremely fast and continuous motion that we are always going through.

The incredible power of our sun dominated the whole other-worldly scene as its shimmering, ethereal corona sent streamers extending millions of miles into space, many times the diameter of its source. I felt the enormous moon’s shadow sweeping over me and the entire landscape in the high mountainous Teton Valley in eastern Idaho at nearly three times the speed of sound. That only set the stage for the next 139 seconds of the most sublime experience you could imagine. The planets and some stars instantly emerged with a 360-degree sunset around us, giving me a complete sense of the life-giving atmosphere of the earth all at once, far different from any sunrise or sunset, no matter how gorgeous it might be.

I was transported right off this familiar planet into a whole new world as all man-made time stood still in this eternal moment of all-inclusive beauty and grace. An infinitely luminous and numinous universe so far above any human comprehension revealed itself just for a moment. No one can remain unchanged after such an experience.

AUGUST HIGHLIGHTS

Aug. 1: Maria Mitchell was born on this day in 1818. She established the orbit of a new comet and made many other significant contributions to astronomy, becoming America’s first female professional astronomer.

Aug. 4: The Phoenix Mission to Mars was launched on this day in 2007. Last-quarter moon is at 2:19 p.m.

Aug. 6: The Curiosity Rover was launched to Mars on this day in 2012.

Aug. 11: New moon is at 5:59 a.m.

Aug. 12: The Perseid meteor shower peaks this Sunday morning.

Aug.13: The moon is just above Venus tonight.

Aug. 18: First-quarter moon is at 3:50 a.m.

Aug. 20: The moon is close to Saturn tonight.

Aug. 25: The Spitzer infrared telescope was launched on this day in 2003.

Aug. 26: Full moon is at 7:51 a.m. This is also called the Sturgeon or Grain Moon. Mercury can be seen low in the eastern morning sky.

Aug. 31: Venus is just one degree below Spica in Virgo this evening 30 minutes after sunset.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England

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