This column is called What’s Up in Durango Skies, and in case you haven’t noticed, the last couple of weeks the answer has been clouds. And finally some much needed rain.
Meteorology is a fair game topic this month, not only for the monsoon, but because the Old Fort Lewis Observatory is getting a new weather station installed adjacent to it. This is station No. 99 of the West Texas Mesonet. (Who knew that some of those Texans consider Southwest Colorado a part of West Texas!) When it is fully operational in a couple of months, it will provide real-time weather for anyone who wants to log in.
Through Texas Tech University and the National Weather Service, this station is part of a network that is particularly interested in wind. Wind is measured at three different elevations above the ground. For the last couple of weeks, I have been helping with that installation – getting holes and trenches dug, power and internet cables buried, and a temporary fence rerouted to discourage all the overly friendly cows that like to leave presents we don’t really care for within the observatory fence line.
Meteorologists may really like the weather station, but I expect that some stargazers might be more interested in meteors. Meteorology and meteors have the same Greek root meaning high in the air.
Since ancient times, it was assumed that meteors were something in the atmosphere, but not until the 19th century was it realized that the cause of meteors was literally out of this world.
This monthTonight (Aug. 11) will be the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. This is often one of the best meteor showers of the year, producing an average of up to 60 shooting stars an hour. This shower occurs as the Earth passes though the trail of debris left by the comet Swift-Tuttle. The best views will be after midnight, after the moon has set. Although the meteors will radiate from the constellation Perseus, they will be visible throughout the sky.
Around sunset on the evening of Aug. 27, Venus and Jupiter will appear to be incredibly close to each other. This conjunction will place them less than 1/10th of a degree apart. That is one of the closest planetary conjunctions I can remember. You will need to find a place with a clear view to the west, as this conjunction will be close to the horizon. Both planets will set about 8:45.
Mars and Saturn are having their own conjunction this month in Scorpius. They will only get 4 degrees from each other, so not nearly as spectacular as Venus and Jupiter. Watching the two over the course of the next few nights will show quite a change in their relative positions near Antares. During this conjunction, Saturn will be almost stationary as Mars moves much more quickly through the sky toward the east.
If you happen to look up and see clouds instead of stars, the new Mesonet station might be one of the many interconnected weather stations that will help tell you when the next chance for a clear night will be.
Charles Hakes teaches in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.