The big highlight for August stargazing is the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. It’s one of the best of the year as our world crosses into a dense debris trail left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle that last passed through this part of the solar system back in 1992. The Perseids get going the first few days of August, but this year there’s a full moon at the same time. Most of the meteors — or “shooting stars” — will be lost in the glare of lunar light.
The good news is that during the peak of the Perseids on the night of Aug. 11-12, there won’t be quite as much moonlight as we’ll have a last quarter moon (a half-moon). As it is with most meteor showers, the Perseids are best seen from after midnight until just before morning twilight. Unfortunately, with the moon in the sky at the same time, you won’t see quite as many meteors as you usually would, but it will still be a pretty good show. In the countryside, you may still see more than 50 meteors an hour or more!
The big stars of evening stargazing this August are actually planets, Jupiter and Saturn. They’ll be available all night long this month. You can’t miss them hanging close together in the early evening southeast sky. Jupiter is definitely the brighter of the two and is by far the brightest star-like object in the evening sky. Saturn isn’t quite as bright but is easily visible with the naked eye, less than 10 degrees to the lower left of Jupiter. Both planets reached their closest distance to Earth in July, but are still more than close enough to make great backyard telescope targets.
With even a small scope, both planets are a sight to behold. Jupiter is wonderful with its cloud bands and four brightest moons. They continually dance in orbit around Jupiter, changing their positions relative to the planet as you view them from night to night. They resemble tiny stars on either side of the giant planet. Some nights you can’t see all four of them because one or more may be behind Jupiter or camouflaged against Jupiter’s disk. It’s also not that difficult to see the great red spot, a raging storm on Jupiter more than twice the diameter of Earth. Since Jupiter spins on its axis every 10 hours, the red spot is not always facing in our direction. There’s a great website from Sky and Telescope magazine that can help you keep up with Jupiter’s rotation as well as the night to night arrangements of Jupiter’s brightest moons. Check it out at skyandtelescope.org/observing/a-jupiter-almanac.
Saturn is even more gorgeous with its ring system that’s more than 150,000 miles in diameter. When you set your scope on Saturn, even a smaller scope, you should be able to clearly see the ring system and even some of its moons. Unfortunately Jupiter and Saturn are not rising very high in the sky this summer. That’s unfortunate because there’s a lot more of Earth’s blurring atmosphere between you and the planets when they’re low in the sky. It’s still worth your telescope time, though. Just take long continuous looks through your scope and hopefully you’ll catch windows of thinner air from time to time.
The full moon this month is officially on Aug. 3, but on Aug. 1 and 2 the moon will be virtually full and will pass just below Jupiter and Saturn. It will be a heck of a good show with an encore on Aug. 28-29, when another nearly full moon passes below the dynamic duo of our solar system.
The planet Mars is also on the rise in the evening sky in August. It rises in the midnight hour during the first part of the month, but is up by 10 p.m. toward month’s end. You can’t miss it with its very distinct orange-red glow. Mars isn’t as bright as Jupiter, but is definitely brighter than Saturn. You might be able to see some surface detail, such as one of its polar caps. From now until October, you have a good chance of seeing Mars even more clearly as it gets closer to Earth. On Oct. 13, the red planet will be the closest to Earth that it will be be until 2035.
The summer constellations are in full bloom now. In the low southern sky, you’ll see Scorpius the Scorpion, which really resembles a Scorpion. Next door, just to the left of Scorpius, will be Sagittarius the Archer that actually looks much more like a teapot. Jupiter and Saturn are both perched just to the left of Sagittarius.
Over in the northwestern sky is the Big Dipper hanging by its handle. Just to the right is the much fainter Little Dipper with Polaris, the North Star, at the end of the handle. In the northeast is a giant “W,” otherwise known as the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen. That W outlines a throne that Queen Cassiopeia is eternally tied to as punishment for offending Hera, the Queen of the Gods of Mount Olympus.
Nearly overhead is the Summer Triangle, made up of three bright stars: Vega, Altair and Deneb. All three of these stars are the brightest in their respective constellations Lyra the Harp, Cygnus the Swan, and Aquila the Evil Eagle. The Summer Triangle is a great tool to help you find these constellations and many other surrounding celestial portraits.
Don’t take these warm summer nights for granted!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is also available for private star parties. You can contact him at [email protected]