The next few nights offer two spectacular cosmic views that anyone can enjoy. This weekend marks the peak of a beautiful alignment of the planets Venus, Mars and Saturn in the evening sky. This impressive gathering comes ahead of the annual Perseid meteor shower, a shooting star fest that will be at its best Aug. 11 to 13.
About an hour after sunset, anyone with a clear and open view of the west-northwest horizon should be able to spot the triangle of three planets shining low in the west.
This graphic shows where to look to spot the planetary triangle on Aug. 8.
"These three planets are destined to crowd into a relatively small area of the sky, making for a very distinctive and eye-catching formation that is sure to thrill most sky watchers," said Joe Rao, SPACE.com Skywatching Columnist.
Venus, the famed "Evening Star," will shine brightest in the sky, with Mars and Saturn appearing fainter. You can see them together any evening now through the meteor shower.
"So while Venus should be more than bright enough to see with the unaided eye in the fading twilight glow, Saturn and Mars will likely be a bit more difficult," Rao said. "Indeed, although Saturn and Mars are of first magnitude, they appear only about 1/150th as bright as Venus!"
Rao recommends also using binoculars to scan the sky for the planetary alignment, particularly if the sky is hazy. People under dark skies in rural locations will have no trouble spotting the trio.
On the evening of Aug. 12, the three planets will hang together in the western sky before disappearing below the horizon well after sunset. ?The planets will hang together in the western sky until 10 pm or so,? according to NASA.
But, the show will go on, when the Perseid meteor shower begins.
The Perseid meteor shower is caused by debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every 133 years the comet swings through the inner solar system and leaves behind a trail of debris. Earth passes through these trails each August. When the comet bits enter our atmosphere, they vaporize, creating the meteors. [Top 10 Perseid Meteor Shower Facts]
Weather permitting, skywatchers can catch these "shooting stars" anywhere, but the best views are under dark skies, away from urban and suburban lights, Rao said.
"The best time to watch for meteors will be from the late-night hours of Wednesday, Aug. 11 on through the predawn hours of Aug. 13 ? two full nights and early mornings," he said. "Patient skywatchers with good conditions could see up to 60 shooting stars an hour or more."
- Gallery - Venus Seen From Around the World
- Galleries: Perseids in 2005 and 2006
- Meteor Shower Viewer's Guide