While the river, the canyons, and the desert surrounded by the Chisos mountains are etched in my memory, one of the most memorable aspects of the trip was sitting in the desert at night gazing at the dark sky full of stars. George Pate, one of the intrepid paddlers, had just finished an introductory astronomy course and was able to point out a few constellations and other prominent celestial entities.
Here in the mountains of Western North Carolina, one can still get away from the ever-increasing light pollution and immerse oneself in the night and, with a little decompressing, actually get a sense of that primordial connection with the universe. As summer wanes, three of our planetary neighbors will be prominent in the night sky.
Just now, Jupiter and Saturn hover above the eastern horizon in the predawn sky. These planets will be rising earlier and earlier and by mid-autumn they will both be visible in the constellation Taurus. Venus is also in the eastern morning sky and will be nearly full as the crescent moon passes above it on July 22. It too is rising earlier and earlier and by late autumn will take its place over the western horizon as the “evening star.”
The full moon on Aug. 9 will hinder Perseid fans. The Perseid meteor shower, which will peak in the early morning hours of Aug. 12, is named for its origin within the constellation Perseus. It is usually one of the more active showers with an average rate of between 50 and 150 meteors per hour.
Because of the dark skies, the smaller (5 to 10 per hour) South Delta Aquarids may present better views. Look for them in the southeastern sky between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. from July 28 through July 31.
While those desert night skies would surely have been impressive on their own, George’s limited knowledge helped bring them alive. But one doesn’t have to go to Texas to find those willing to share their astronomical expertise. The Astronomy Club of Asheville offers regular (indoor) club meetings and club sponsored “star gazes.”