Waiting for Perseus

The Summer Solstice—the longest day and shortest night of the year—occurred last week, heralding the beginning of summer in the Western Hemisphere.

The long days make summer the idyllic time for outdoor pursuits and backyard barbeques. But for stargazers, the short nights present something of a challenge.

“It doesn’t really get totally dark until after midnight and it begins to lighten up by 4 a.m.,” said local, retired astronomer Ron Oriti.

Oriti used to work at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory and he knows something about finding stars in challenging environments, after battling the increasing light pollution over his quarter century with the observatory.

That said, the Eastern Sierra still has some of the darkest night skies in the country, said Oriti, who photographs celestial phenomena as a hobby. He’s particularly fond of the Saline Valley area, where huge mountain ranges on each side of the valley block almost all man-made light. The Long Valley and Owens Valley areas are almost as good, with the Sierra Nevada and White Mountains blocking any incoming city lights from the Central Valley and/or Las Vegas. In the short, summer nighttime, there are some obvious stars out now.

“You can find Arcturus flashing blue and red if you draw a line down the handle of the Big Dipper and follow it,” he said. “That’s a very pretty star.”

The name of the star derives from Ancient Greek word, Arktouros, and means “Guardian of the Bear” a reference to it being the brightest star in the constellation Boötes (of which it forms the left foot), which is next to the Greater and Lesser Bears, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Saturn is still visible to the night sky, too—a big, soft glow of a planet and a familiar companion since winter.

But the big event, the one that stargazers wait all year for, is still a month or so out.

The Perseid meteor shower is due Aug. 11 through Aug. 13 and it’s one of the best shows of the year, made even better because it’s not freezing outside like it is for another spectacular show, the Geminid meteor shower of deep December.

This year’s Perseids, as meteor aficionados call them, will be during a waning crescent moon, meaning the meteor show won’t be exceptional, but it will be very good (weather permitting), Oriti said.

“This is such an accessible meteor shower,” he said. “It’s warm outside, you don’t have to huddle in your car, freezing and scanning the sky, and the rewards are great.”

“These typically fast and bright meteors radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus the Hero,” according to the astronomy website EarthSky. “You don’t need to know Perseus to watch the shower because the meteors appear in all parts of the sky.

“The Perseids are considered by many people to be the year’s best shower, and often peak at 50 or more meteors per hour in a dark sky,” the site stated.

“The Perseids tend to strengthen in number as late night deepens into midnight, and typically produce the most meteors in the wee hours before dawn. These meteors are often bright and frequently leave persistent trains. Starting at mid-to-late evening on the nights of Aug. 11-12 and Aug. 12-13, watch for the Perseid meteors to streak across this short summer night from late night until dawn, with only a little interference from the waning crescent moon.”