PERSEIDS, PLANETS, AND MORE!
Even though it’s become one of the most overused words in the English language, awesome is the very best word to describe stargazing this month! There’s so much going on. The biggest show is the annual Perseid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. It’ll be spectacular this year because there will be no moonlight getting in the way. Skies will be truly dark. If you’re not already there, you owe it to yourself to head out to the countryside, as far away from light pollution as possible to maximize your Perseid pleasure!
The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the nights of August 11-12 and August 12-13th, although it’ll be almost as good two to three nights before the peak. Keep that in mind if the weather forecast isn’t looking the best for the peak nights. The Earth in its orbit around is plowing into a thick debris trail left in the wake of Comet Swift-Tuttle. The dust and debris bits are pretty much no bigger than pebble size, but really light up the sky as they encounter Earth’s atmosphere. The absolute best time of night to watch any meteor shower is from after midnight to just before morning twilight. That’s because after midnight, your position on the Earth has rotated toward the direction of Earth’s orbit into the comet debris. After midnight on the peak morning of August 13th, you may see more than 50 meteors or “shooting stars” an hour in the countryside, but even in urban areas you may see more than 20 per hour. The best way to watch them is to sit back in a reclining lawn chair and roll your eyes all around the sky. It’s called the Perseid meteor shower because the meteors seem to emanate from the general vicinity of the constellation Perseus, but they can show up anywhere in the celestial dome. Get out there and catch some falling stars!
August evening skies this year are blessed with three bright planets; Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter. All month long, look for Venus popping out in the evening twilight in the low western sky. Don’t wait to look because it sets shortly after twilight ends. Even though Venus is the brightest star-like object in the sky, it’s not that great of a telescope target since it’s completely shrouded in perpetual clouds. One thing you will see when you point your telescope at Venus is that it’s not a perfectly round disk but oval, like a gibbous moon. Both Venus and Mercury go through phases like the moon since their orbits around the sun lie within Earth’s orbit.
By contrast, there’s much to see with a telescope on Saturn and Jupiter. Now is the best time because both planets are at their closest approaches to Earth this year. Shortly after evening twilight, they’ll jump right out at you in the low southeast sky. They are the brightest starlike objects in that part of the sky with Jupiter the brighter of the two, just to the lower left of Saturn.
Viewing Saturn and Jupiter through even a small telescope is a really a treat. It's best though to wait two to three hours after sunset to let them get a little higher in the sky, farther from the blurring effects near the horizon. With Saturn you’ll be blown away by its ring system. It’s surreal! Along with the ring system, you’ll see Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. It resembles a dim star. You might even see some of Saturn’s fainter moons.
After you marvel at Saturn, check out Jupiter. You’ll easily resolve the disk of planet and possibly some of its darker cloud bands. Look for up to four of Jupiter’s brightest moons that line up on both sides of the largest planet in our solar system. They resemble tiny stars that never get far away from Jupiter. Some nights you can't see all of the moons because one or more may be behind Jupiter or camouflaged in front of it.
The moon will have some nice conjunctions with the planets this month. On the 10th and 11th, the new crescent moon will be hanging close to Venus. Later in August, the nearly full moon will be perched just below Saturn on the 20th and to the lower right of Jupiter on the 22nd. The full moon is on the 24th and is best known as the Sturgeon Moon because August is the best time to catch large sturgeon fish in the North American Great Lakes. The August moon is also known as the grain moon and the green corn moon, among other nicknames.
Not far from Jupiter and Saturn are two of my favorite constellations, Scorpius the Scorpion, and Sagittarius the Archer, in full view in the low southern sky. Scorpius really looks like a scorpion, with the bright red star Antares marking the heart of the beast. Just to the left of Scorpius is Sagittarius, a constellation that outlines a Centaur, or half-man, half-horse, shooting an arrow at Scorpius. If you can see that, I want to party with you! Sagittarius looks much more like a teapot, and that’s what most amateur astronomers refer to it as. The teapot is steaming with stars as its spout points in the direction of the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.
In the eastern sky is the famous “Summer Triangle,” made up of three bright stars; Vega, Deneb, and Altair. They are the brightest stars in that part of the sky, and each of them is the brightest in their individual constellations. Vega is the brightest star in Lyra the Harp; Deneb’s the brightest in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the Northern Cross; and Altair is the brightest shiner in Aquila the evil Eagle.
The Big Bear, Ursa Major, and the Little Bear, Ursa Minor, reside as usual in the northern sky. Ursa Minor is also known as the Little Dipper. Polaris, the North Star, resides at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle. The sun, the moon, and every single star and planet seem to spin around Polaris every 24 hours. They’re not moving but we are, as the Earth rotates under the great celestial sphere available to us every clear night.
There are many more constellations and celestial treasures to be found in these late summer heavens. Stay up late and enjoy it all!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Available at bookstores and online at www.adventurepublications.net.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you’re seeing in the night sky drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org