By Mike Lynch
Without a doubt, the usual highlight for stargazing in August is the annual Perseid meteor shower. Unfortunately this year the moon will be just past the full phase and will wash out the sky through most of the peak of the shower during the early morning hours of Aug. 12 and 13. That’s a real bummer because the Perseids are one of the best meteor showers of the year.
Normally in a dark moonless sky you would see more than 50 meteors or “shooting stars” an hour in the early morning hours after midnight, especially in the countryside. Next year, however, the skies will be dark again for the Perseids.
By the way, the full moon this month on Aug. 10 is the closest and biggest full moon of the year. Because of that astrologers and media have dubbed it “Super Moon” 2014. I’ll have more to say about that in next week’s Starwatch.
Despite the Perseid whiteout, courtesy of the near-full moon, the nights are getting shorter so you won’t have to stay up quite as late to begin your stargazing adventures. Early this month you can still spot Saturn and Mars fairly close to each other, less than 10 degrees apart in the low southwest sky as evening begins. You can’t miss them since they’re the brightest star-like objects in that part of the sky. Don’t wait too long to find Mars and Saturn in the August evening skies because they’ll both be below the horizon by around 11:30 p.m. At the start of the month Mars, with its distinctive reddish glow, will shine just to the lower right of Saturn.
Quite honestly, 4,200-mile-wide Mars will not thrill you if you direct your telescope at it, even a larger scope. Even though it’s just 116 million miles away the most you’ll see is some dark patches that make up some of its mountains and valleys and maybe a little white fringe making up its northern polar cap.
Saturn is much more impressive than Mars through the telescope, even though it’s more than 900 million miles away. That’s because it’s a much larger planet and also has that 130,000-mile diameter ring system that you will love seeing through even the smallest of telescopes. Don’t be too bummed out if Saturn is a little fuzzy through your scope. It’s not your scope, but rather the fact that the big planet is low in the sky and the light we see from Saturn has a much thicker Earth’s atmosphere to get through so close to the horizon.
Again Mars and Saturn are really close to each other right now but during the last week of August Saturn and Mars will draw really closer together in the southwest sky.
Speaking of planetary celestial hugs, right around the middle of the month the bright planets Venus and Jupiter will put on a spectacular show as they’ll be almost touching each other during morning twilight. I’ll have more on that in the next few weeks.
The summer constellations are in full bloom now over Everett and there’s much to gaze upon. If you’re lucky enough to be in the countryside away from light pollution you’re in for a real show. Summer evenings are the best time to see the Milky Way band, a ribbon of light stretching nearly overhead from the northern to southern horizon. All of the stars we see in our skies are members of the Milky Way, a galaxy in the shape of a spiral disk. When you see that milky band of light, you are looking at the main plane of the Milky Way Galaxy, where most of the stars are located. In fact, there are so many stars that they are bathing us in a continual glow. The rest of the stars that we see in the night sky outside of this Milky Way band are all stars that are relatively close neighbors to our Sun and Earth.
If you follow the Milky Way band to the southern horizon, you’ll run right into one of my favorite constellations, what I call “the little teapot,” more formally known as the constellation Sagittarius the Archer. Sagittarius is supposed to be a half-man half-horse shooting an arrow, but it’s much easier to see it as a teapot. The bright planet Jupiter is just above the handle of the teapot this month. To the right or west of the teapot is Scorpius the Scorpion, the rare constellation that actually looks like a Scorpion. It kind of looks as if the little teapot is pouring hot liquid on the scorpion’s tail, making it curl up even more.
Over in the northwestern sky is the Big Dipper hanging by its handle, and 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.
Instructions for using the star map
To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map to the compass points on the horizon where you’re observing from. East and West on this map are not backwards. This is not a misprint. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, east and west will be in their proper positions. Also use a small flashlight and attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net