August 2012

Four planets, two of them getting close together, an annual meteor shower, as well as a few interesting events, mark August as a very good month to go out observing as you're finishing up your summer vacations.

Check out the images I was able to get (pre-processing) at my recent trip to Cherry Springs State Park here.

EVENTS...

Full Moon - 2nd (Visible all night - East around sunset, West around Sunrise)

Last Quarter Moon - 9th (Visible from midnight into the morning)

11th - Close Encounter - Jupiter & Moon - Look East after 2am and before sunrise and look for the Moon.  The bright object to the left of it will be Jupiter.

11th - 12th - Perseid Meteor Shower - This should be a good year for the Perseids, given that at its peak you could see up to 1 or 2 per minute and the crescent Moon comes up around 1am or 2am, not lit enough to interfere with visibility too much.

Some advice for watching:

Find a dark location and lie down in a reclining chair or swimming pool floaty

Look toward Perseus (In the NNE around 9pm, rises throughout the night until sunrise where it will be almost directly above.)  That is where the radiant is - where the meteors will appear to be coming from

The strategy to observe this one is to start watching in the evening of Saturday the 11th and continue until daylight on the 12th.  Morning hours are the best, and even the night/morning before should be good.  Luckily, if the 11th is clouded out, the night of the 12th should be almost as good.  The shower is usually active from mid July to late August, so you may see some Perseids in the days leading up to and after the peak as well.

Check the weather to see if the skies will be clear (weather.com has a good map here)

Adapt your eyes to the dark by staying away from light sources or using a red light if you need to look at a star chart or not trip over something.

If you're feeling extra nerdy, do a scientific meteor count.  More info at S&T and IMO

13th - Close Encounter - Venus & Moon - Get up early and watch the Northeast between 3:30am and sunrise and you'll see a crescent Moon above and to the right of Venus.

13th - Occultation of Venus - This will require a skilled observer that can find Venus in the daytime.  However, if you can, you'll be able to watch the Moon pass in front of (and block) Venus.  Around Pennsylvania, it'll start at 4:40pm when Venus and the Moon are low on the Western horizon.  The further west you are in America, the higher it'll be when it starts, and the more likely it'll be that you'll be able to see it reappear. See Sky & Telescope for more.

13th, 14th - Mars & Saturn - For the past couple months, Mars and Saturn have been moving closer together.  Over these two nights, they are pretty much the closest, and line up with Spica, Virgo's brightest star.  Look to WSW after sunset and you should be able to find the three bright objects lined up vertically with Spica at the bottom, Saturn on top, and Mars in between.

New Moon - 17th (darkest skies)

21st - Close Encounter - Moon, Saturn, Mars - Look SW after sunset and find the waxing crescent Moon.  Above and to the left will be Mars, while above and to the right (a little higher) will be Saturn.

First Quarter Moon - 24th (Visible until midnight)

Full Moon - 31st (Visible all night - East around sunset, West around Sunrise)

PLANETS...well, the ones visible with your naked eye

Planets you can see around Sunset - Mars (SW), Saturn (SW)

Planets you can see throughout the night - None

Planets you can see in the Morning - Jupiter (SE), Venus (E), Mercury (E)

Mercury - If you're willing to get up a half hour before sunrise (6:30) between the 14th and 22nd of the month, you can catch Mercury 10˚ above the eastern horizon.  The earlier you get out, the lower it'll be.  Close to the Moon on the 15th and 16th.

Venus - A morning "star" this month that stays about the same height each morning.  Look east after 3am and before the sun rises.  The brightest object in that part of the sky and will be lowest at 3am, rising up to about 40˚ by sunrise.  A telescope will allow you to see Venus in its half phase.  Closest to the Moon (and occulted) on the 13th.

MARS - In the SW after sunset, and sets around 10pm.  Extend the handle of the Big Dipper and follow that arc to Arcturus, then speed on to another bright star Spica, where Saturn and Mars (the reddish hued object) are hanging out this month - use a star chart to help. Closest to Saturn on the 13th and 14th.  Close to the Moon on the 21st.

Jupiter - Rises in the East around 1:30am and visible until sunrise.  About 20˚ up and to the right of Venus.  Close to the Moon on the 11th and 12th.  Use binoculars or a telescope to try to see the four Galilean Moons.

SATURN - In the SW after sunset, and sets around 10pm.  Extend the handle of the Big Dipper and follow that arc to Arcturus, then speed on to another bright star Spica, where Saturn and Mars (the reddish hued object) are hanging out this month - use a star chart to help. Closest to Mars on the 13th and 14th.  Close to the Moon on the 21st.

CONSTELLATIONS... (see sky map link at the bottom for a Star Map for this month - or ask Mr. Webb)    Look straight up and you'll see...

Just after Sunset (around 8:30pm) - Hercules.  Hercules has an Extra Challenge! Look for M13, the Hercules Cluster in between two of Hercules' "keystone" stars.  It known as the best globular cluster in the northern skies.  It will be a fuzzy spot in binoculars and will be even cooler through a telescope

Extra Challenge! Use binoculars (or even a telescope) and a star chart to scan through the southern constellation of Sagittarius.  There are at least 7 easily visible clusters and nebulas up and to the right of the "teapot" of Sagittarius.

Midnight - Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila (a little to the south) - These are the Summer constellations, and since they are visible right above us around midnight (and to the east after sunset), it's now summer!  More details below in the "General Constellation Finding Tips"  Extra Challenge! Look for M57, the Ring Nebula in between two of Lyra's stars.  It is 2,300 light years away, which means we're seeing what it looked like 2,300 years ago.  The shell that you see is the remnants of the central star that blew up some 20,000 years ago.  It has a donut-like appearance through a telescope.  It'll be easy to find, but tough to see in binoculars, so get the scope out for this one.

Early Morning - Pegasus, Andromeda Extra Challenge! Using your naked eye (dark-adapted and in a dark area) or binoculars under normal conditions and a star chart, try finding our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy.  It'll be a faint, but bigger, fuzzy in the constellation Andromeda

GENERAL CONSTELLATION FINDING TIPS:

Summer Constellations: Lyra, Cygnus, Aquila, Delphinus

Look to the east after sunset or straight up around midnight and you'll be able to see Lyra (the Harp), Cygnus (the Swan), Aquila (the Eagle), (and Delphinus the Dolphin.)  These three constellations have the three brightest stars of the summer constellations (Vega, Deneb, Altair - respectively.)  Those bright stars create the summer triangle.  Off to the east of this is the small but beautiful constellation of Delphinus.

Use a sky map from www.skymaps.com to help you out.

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