Watching meteors and meteor showers is a great way to start observational astronomy. Because this requires no telescope or even binoculars, it's an astronomical activity that almost anyone can enjoy. All you need are your eyes, a comfortable lawn chair and, of course, clear and reasonably dark skies.
Meteor showers are caused by tiny particles of dust and rocks left over from the formation of the solar system that are constantly falling down to Earth. Most of them go unseen because they are so small but the larger ones produce 'shooting stars'. On an average night you can see about 10 meteors per hour with the naked eye. However, when the Earth passes through a comet's tail or the debris left by a long dead comet, that number grows greatly. We entered the debris of a comet late last month (as we do every year) and will continue passing through it for a few more weeks. So this month is a great time to look for meteors!
Topping the meteor watcher's August list is the well-known Perseid meteor shower. Perseid meteors may be seen from late July to late August but the peak this year is expected at midnight on Saturday, 12 August. The Perseids have a peak rate of up to 100 meteors per hour, or more than one a minute, so there should be large numbers of meteors falling throughout the night, perhaps as many as one Perseid every couple of minutes towards dawn. These meteors all seem to radiate from a point in the constellation Perseus, which can be found in the north-east sky at midnight and much higher by dawn. Perseus lays midway between Polaris (the North Star) and Taurus the Bull.
Unfortunately, the waning gibbous Moon will be in Pisces and rising about 9PM so we may not see many of the fainter meteors. For best results, watch the sky a little to the left of the radiant point, well away from the Moon.
Also on this month's meteor watch are the Southern Delta Aquarids. While they reached their peak earlier in July, keep an eye out for them through mid-month too.
Other August highlights:
The Sun: The Sun is in the constellation of Cancer at the start of August, moving into Leo on the 8th.
Venus: Venus is a brilliant 'morning star', rising in the north-east about two hours before sunrise. It is easy to pick out even in the dawn twilight.
Mercury: Mercury reaches its greatest elongation west of the Sun on 7 August, so there is a chance we might be able to see the planet before dawn this month. On the morning of 9 August, Mercury will be almost directly below Venus.
Mars: Mars is setting in the west less than an hour after sunset so we are very unlikely to see the 'red planet' this month or indeed for the rest of this year.
Jupiter: Giant Jupiter is low in the south-west at dusk and sets about two hours after sunset. It looks like a very bright, steady star, almost bright enough to imitate Venus as the 'evening star'. The Moon hovers above lone Jupiter on the 1st and 29th.
Saturn: Saturn is at conjunction, almost directly behind the Sun, on 7 August so we won't be able to see the ringed planet at all this month. Venus and Saturn are very close together on the 26th but difficult to view in the brightening dawn.