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August Star Map

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Sensational Summer Stargazing!

I love this time of the year. There’s plenty of summer left but you can kick off your stargazing adventures much earlier in the evening. The skies are filled with celestial gems this August including a couple of bright planets!

The best celestial show in August is the annual Perseid meteor shower that began in July and peaks the night of August 12-13th. Unfortunately the moon will be nearly full that night and all that lunar light will visually wash out all but the brightest meteors.

Jupiter and Saturn are putting on a great show throughout August. Jupiter is the brightest star-like object in the evening sky, popping out in the lower half of the southwestern sky during twilight. Saturn, almost as bright as Jupiter, begins August in the low southeast just to the lower left of Jupiter.

On Friday, August 9th, there will be a lovely close conjunction between Jupiter and the waxing gibbous “oval-ish” moon. The moon will be perched just to the upper left of Jupiter. On Sunday evening, August 11th, the fatter waxing gibbous moon will be parked just to the right of Saturn.

Jupiter and Saturn are great to look at through even a small telescope. Jupiter is great with its cloud bands and its four brightest moons constantly dancing in orbit around Jupiter from night to night. They resemble tiny stars on either side of the big planet. Some nights you can't see all of them because one or more may be behind Jupiter or camouflaged in front of Jupiter.

Saturn is even more gorgeous with its ring system that spans a diameter of more than 150,000 miles. Set even a small telescope on Saturn and you should be able to clearly see the ring system and even some of its moons. Unfortunately, Saturn isn’t rising all that high in the sky this summer, and because of that there's a lot more of Earth's blurring atmosphere between you and Saturn. It’s still worth your telescope time though. For both planets make sure you take long continuous looks through your scope to get use to the light levels, and so you can catch windows of more transparent air.

The brightest actual star in the summer evening sky is Arcturus, shining proudly high in the west. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer that looks more like a giant kite, with the orange reddish star Arcturus at the tail. The second brightest star in the evening heavens is Vega, the brightest star in a small, faint constellation called Lyra the Lyre, or Harp. Vega is a brilliant bluish-white star perched high in the eastern August sky. Vega and a small faint parallelogram below it are supposed to outline a celestial harp. I don’t think you’ll hear any music though.

Also in the east you’ll notice two other bright stars that form a triangle with Vega. This is known as the “Summer Triangle”. The star to the lower left of Vega in the eastern sky is Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the “Northern Cross”. The star to the lower right of Vega is Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.

The Big Dipper is hanging by its handle in the northwestern sky. The seven bright stars of the dipper outline the rear end and the tail of the constellation Big Bear or Ursa Major. The dimmer Little Dipper that doubles as Ursa Minor or Little Bear, is standing up on its handle with its only bright star Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, at the end of the handle.

Keeping company with Jupiter and Saturn in the low southern sky are the classic summer constellations Scorpius the Scorpion and Sagittarius the Archer. This summer Scorpius, that really looks like a scorpion, is shining just below Jupiter. Antares, a red giant star just to the lower right of Jupiter, is the brightest star in Scorpius and marks the heart of the beast.

To the lower right of Saturn is a distinct pattern of stars that looks just like a teapot. That’s the brightest part of the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, a half-man, half-horse shooting an arrow. Go figure! Look just above the teapot and you’re gazing right in the direction of the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. If you’re starwatching in the dark countryside and there’s little or no moonlight you can see a ghostly band of light extending above the teapot spout, all the way toward the northeastern horizon. That’s the Milky Way band, the combined light of billions and billions of stars in the thickest part or plane of our home galaxy.



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 mikewlynch@comcast.net