Let's hope for clear skies the next couple of weeks as Mother Nature has a double-header in store -- an evening planetary show back-to-back with the Perseid meteor shower. (The only thing missing will be a Roadrunner cartoon -- remember them?)
For the first show, all five naked-eye planets will appear in our evening sky, four at the same time. After sunset Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Saturn are huddled low in the west. The easiest to see is Venus, the brilliant "evening star." The most difficult is Mercury which sets early and is well to Venus' lower right near the horizon at dusk.
As the sky darkens and Mercury begins to slip below the horizon, two other plants come into view. The brighter is creamy-colored Saturn to Venus' upper right with slightly fainter and reddish Mars to Venus' upper left. The three are most tightly grouped Aug. 8 when a fist held at arm's length easily covers them all.
But note how the positions change nightly. The fast-moving Venus is nearest Saturn August 7, and then equidistant from Saturn and Mars August 10. It continues moving further from Saturn while closing in on Mars. Venus and Mars will be closest August 18, but from about August 15-21, they will be separated by little more than the width of a finger held at arm's length.
Soon after sunset on August 11, look for a thin crescent Moon to Mercury's lower left. The following evening the Moon is below the other three planets and by August 13 is to their left.
So where's Jupiter? About two hours after sunset, as the other planets are setting in the west, bright Jupiter is rising in the east and will be up the rest of the night.
While having all five naked-eye planets in the same evening sky isn't rare, it's not that common so you won't want to miss it.
The second show features the Perseid meteor shower, usually one of the year's best. The shower is expected to peak the night of August 12/13 although there might also be some activity the nights before and after. With the crescent Moon setting early, we will have a dark, moonless sky all night which is great.
It won't hurt to begin watching for meteors, also called "shooting stars" and "falling stars," as soon as the sky darkens, although from around 11 p.m. until dawn will likely be the most productive period.
The darker your skies, the more meteors you'll see, so if you live in a light-polluted city consider visiting a rural friend or park that night. If you can't avoid city lights, overhead is usually the darkest part of the sky, so stretch out on a blanket or a reclining lawn chair and enjoy nature's free all-night show.
• Sky Calendar.
* August 13 Fri.: An unlucky day for the superstitious - glad I'm not!
* 16 Mon.: The Moon is at 1st quarter.
* 17 Tue. evening: The Moon is just to the upper left of Scorpius' brightest star Antares.
* 24 Tue.: The full Moon is called the Grain Moon and Green Corn Moon.
• Naked-eye Planets. (The Sun, Moon, and planets rise in the east and set in the west due to Earth's west-to-east rotation on its axis.) In the early evening Mercury, Venus, Saturn, and Mars are low in the west. Bright Jupiter rises later and by morning is high in the southwest.
• Mars Hoax. I'm still getting calls and emails about Mars. No, it isn't going to appear as large as the Moon. That just doesn't happen -- ever. Does anyone really think it could?
Stargazer appears every other week. Paul Derrick is an amateur astronomer who lives in Waco. Contact him at 918 N. 30th, Waco, 76707, (254) 753-6920 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See the Stargazer Web site at stargazerpaul.com