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Northwest Summer Skies at Night

Meteors, Space Station Passes and Planets

Northwest nights offer out-of-this-world views when the skies clear each summer. Here’s how, when and where to catch 2020’s best meteor showers, spot the International Space Station streaking overhead and watch the planets dance.

Greg Scheiderer isn’t bothered by solitude. Some of his favorite experiences take place in his West Seattle backyard, alone at night, interrupted only by the occasional curious raccoon.

Scheiderer is a longtime amateur astronomer who keeps tabs on Pacific Northwest sky-watching opportunities on his Seattle Astronomy website. He usually uses a telescope, but you can spot plenty of interesting things from wherever you are with the naked eye.

Areas such as the northwestern Olympics, eastern Cascades and Idaho forestlands are far from urban centers and have the least light pollution, but many prominent objects are visible on a clear night even when muddled by city lights.

“You don’t have to go anywhere to do it,” Scheiderer says. “The sky is always there.”

Here are some of summer 2020’s best celestial events, whether you’re deep in the woods or camped out in your backyard. Before you look up, look into our tips for stargazing and advice from Goldendale Observatory.

Saturn and its rings photographed from inside the planet's shadow by the Cassini spacecraft.
Saturn and its rings backlit by the sun and photographed from inside the planet’s shadow by the Cassini spacecraft. Viewed from Earth without a telescope or other magnification, Saturn looks like a bright star. (Photo courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Planets in Alignment

Planets are some of the easiest objects to spot in the night sky: Just look for the shiniest points you can see. Planets are some of the easiest objects to spot in the night sky: Just look for the shiniest points you can see. 

Venus and Mars are visible in the evenings this summer, and Jupiter and Saturn are visible for almost the entire night most of July.

“Jupiter is especially easy to find because in the evening, it’s the brightest thing out there,” Scheiderer says. 

Throughout the summer and into fall, Jupiter and Saturn will inch closer together on their way toward their nearest conjunction on December 21, which happens only about once every 20 years. In July, the two planets will take a turn lined up directly opposite Earth from the Sun, lighting them up the brightest they’ll be all year. 

Jupiter will hit this point — known as opposition — the night of July 13-14, and Saturn will follow July 20-21. Each will be visible for most of the night, with little moonlight for distraction, and reach their highest points above the horizon around midnight Pacific time. 

You can easily see the planets without a telescope, but a decent pair of binoculars will let you make out some of the moons that orbit Jupiter and the shape of Saturn’s rings, which will be angled right at us for a practically optimal view.

International Space Station photo credit NASA
The International Space Station can be seen passing over the Northwest in low-Earth orbit if you know when and where to look. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Space Station Flybys

One way to socialize from a safe distance: Wave to astronauts as they pass by on the International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth. One way to socialize from a safe distance: Wave to astronauts as they pass by on the International Space Station, which orbits about 250 miles above Earth.

As the station passes in the evening and predawn hours, sunlight at the edge of Earth’s shadow reflects off the spacecraft’s surface, making it visible as a bright dot that moves in an arc across the sky.

“It’s pretty hard to miss even in the middle of downtown Seattle,” says Matt Dahl, a night sky photographer and co-owner of telescope retailer Cloud Break Optics.

The Space Station is an excellent option for beginners to spot and even photograph with long exposure settings on a camera or smartphone with a long-exposure app.

To find out when and where the station will fly overhead, check out NASA’s Spot the Station website, which publishes a two-week preview of sighting opportunities. Look for passes where the station will rise more than 40 degrees above the horizon, minimizing the chance the view will be blocked by buildings or landscapes, and will spend more than a couple minutes traversing the sky.

If you don’t want to sift through the charts yourself, sign up for NASA’s text alerts or download an app such as ISS Spotter, which will ping you in advance of the best station appearances.

Or just look up when it’s dark out, and if you see what looks like a fast, bright, unblinking airplane, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of the Space Station or one of the many satellites orbiting Earth.

A streaking meteor (captured with a 30-second photo exposure) during the annual Perseid meteor shower.
A streaking meteor (captured with a 30-second photo exposure) during the annual Perseid meteor shower. (Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Great Balls of Fire

Meteor showers light up the sky as Earth travels through the trail of debris left by passing comets. Large and small chunks of debris from the comet disintegrate as they enter our atmosphere at 25,000 to 160,000 mph, creating the bright streaks known as shooting stars. 

The Alpha Capricornids (July 3 – August 15, peaking the night of July 28) are typically low-key but can produce a few fireballs, intensely bright meteors that very rarely make a hissing sound or even more rarely explode.

The real show of the summer is the Perseids, which are visible July 17 – August 26 and peak the night of August 11. The Perseids strengthen after midnight, when the Northwest faces forward in Earth’s orbit and flies directly into the path of Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle’s debris. Stargazers in darker areas can potentially see dozens of meteors an hour, and city dwellers should also be able to catch a few fireballs. 

“I’ll go out and sit on my deck and watch,” says Scheiderer. “The biggest and brightest ones still shine through.”

For the best meteor shower experience, pick a cloudless night close to the peak with as little moonlight as possible, and look skyward between late evening and early dawn. 

Watch for two more showers later in the year if clouds stay away, says Robert Lunsford, fireball report coordinator for the American Meteor Society. 

He expects the “shower of the year” will be the Geminids (December 4–17), which peak on the moonless night of December 13. They are rich in colorful fireballs and can be seen all night long, unlike most meteor showers. 

The Geminids shower “constantly provides rates surpassing a meteor a minute from dark skies sites,” Lunsford says.

Another option is the Orionid meteor shower (October 2 – November 7, peaking October 20). Lunsford expects up to 15-20 meteors per hour during the morning hours under dark skies. 

–Written by Mara Grunbaum

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.

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