The Tears of St. Lawrence
The near-full moon bleaches out all but the brightest of this year’s Perseid meteor shower
The moon waxes to full Saturday, rising between the dim water constellations Aquarius and Capricornus. August’s full moon is named the Green Corn Moon, the Grain Moon and the Sturgeon Moon, for the great fish that once filled our waterways.
That same moon, alas, bleaches out all but the brightest bursts from this year’s Perseid meteor shower, which peaks late Friday. Still, away from city lights between midnight and dawn, don’t be surprised if you see an especially bright meteor streak through the heavens.
Each year at this time, Earth passes through the trail of comet Swift-Tuttle, which orbits our sun. While the comet itself is currently at the far edge of the solar system, the wake of debris from it stretches millions of miles. As we pass through that field, the typically tiny bits of dust and ice ignite as they strike the planet’s atmosphere, with the largest streaking across our skies as so-called shooting stars.
The Perseids were once commonly called the Tears of St. Lawrence, in honor of the Christian martyr Laurentius, put to death by the Romans in 258ad. Strapped to an iron stove to be burned alive, during which he exclaimed, “I am already roasted on one side and, if thou wouldst have me well cooked, it is time to turn me on the other.”
As the sun sets this week around 8pm, Saturn appears in the southwest, with icy-glowing Spica a dozen degrees to the south. By 10:30, both have sunk beneath the horizon.
Shortly after Saturn sets in the west, Jupiter rises in the east. At magnitude –2.5, the gaseous giant is the brightest object in the heavens. As dawn approaches, it is high in the southeast.
Mars rises after 2am, perched midway between the horns of Taurus the Bull to the south and the twins Castor and Pollux to the north.