Good News and Bad News
First, let’s start with the good news. As with August stargazing any year, there’s still plenty of summer and great summer constellations in the sky. And with earlier sunsets, you can kick off your stargazing adventures much earlier in the evening. August 2022 is extra special because the wonderful planet Saturn returns to the early evening sky, and will be at its closest to Earth since last August. The bad news is that one of the best meteor showers of the year, the Perseids, peaking on the 12th and 13th, will be pretty much wiped out by moonlight this year although all is not lost. I’ll have more on the Perseids next week in Skywatch.
Now back to the good news this month. On August 14th, Saturn reaches what’s known as opposition. Saturn and the Earth are at their minimum distance from each other this year, just 823 million miles. Believe it or not, that’s considered close for Saturn. It’s called opposition because Saturn and the Sun are at opposite ends of the sky, with the Earth in the middle. This positioning makes Saturn available to us all night long, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise.
Saturn is a phenomenal telescope target. Saturn’s ring system is more than 150,000 miles in diameter but only 50 feet thick in most areas. When you set your scope on Saturn, even with a smaller scope, you should be able to clearly see the ring system and even some of its moons. To the naked eye, Saturn will appear as a moderately bright star barely above the southeast horizon toward the end of evening twilight. As tempting as it is to train your telescope on Saturn early in the evening, you’re better off waiting until at least 11 pm to let it get higher in the sky.
The brightest star in the August evening sky is Arcturus, shining proudly high in the west. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, the Hunting Farmer that actually appears as 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.
You’ll notice that two other bright stars in the eastern sky 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, which doubles as Ursa Minor or the 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.
Low in the southern skies, you can see the classic summer constellations Scorpius the Scorpion and Sagittarius the Archer. This summer Scorpius, which 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.
In the northwest sky, look for the Big Dipper hanging from its handle. The fainter Little Dipper is standing on its handle. The moderately bright star Polaris, also known as the North Star, is at the end of the Little Dipper’s handle.
In the south-southeastern sky, just to the lower right of Jupiter this month is the classic constellation Scorpius the Scorpion, that really resembles a scorpion. In higher northern latitudes, though, the beast's tail never rises above the horizon. Not far from Scorpius in the lower southeast sky is one of my favorite constellations, Sagittarius the Archer. It’s supposed to be a half-man, half-horse shooting an arrow, but it looks much more like a giant teapot!
To the right or east of Scorpius 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 star watching 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.
Enjoy awesome August stargazing!
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