By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.,
August becomes a beach bucket of cosmic fun, enabling casual sky gazers to enjoy bright planets and shooting stars.
On Sunday, Aug. 1, as night takes over the sky, catch Earth’s brilliant neighbor Venus (-3.8 magnitude, very bright) above the western horizon as the sun sets. You can also see our planet’s other neighbor, the dim Mars (1.8 magnitude) — below Venus and to the right — hugging that same horizon.
Mars drops out of our heavens for a while, as it will return to our sky in late November and early December.
After watching Venus and Mars in the constellation Leo dip below the horizon, turn to the east to find Saturn rising in the constellation Capricornus, followed by Jupiter in the constellation Aquarius. The ringed planet — at 0.2 magnitude, bright enough to see from the city — reaches opposition (Aug. 2) at about 2 a.m. Eastern time, according to the U.S. Naval Observatory. From Earth’s perspective, Saturn is opposite the sun, causing it to become “full” like the moon. All night, Saturn crosses the sky from east to west.
Saturn’s current traveling companion, Jupiter, reaches opposition on Aug. 19 at 8 p.m. Eastern time, according to the observatory, as it is at -2.9 magnitude, very bright,
Both large gaseous planets are part of a morning crew, too. Go to sleep, wake before the sun and catch them before sunrise. Walking along a beach, look southwest to see both Saturn (sets after 6 a.m. now) and Jupiter (sets after daylight at 7:45 a.m.)
The peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower occurs Aug. 11-12, which is three days after the new moon (Aug. 8.) On Aug. 11, the young, waxing crescent moon sets at about 10:15 p.m., leaving a dark night to highlight shooting stars.
The peak could reach 90 shooting stars an hour, according to the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, while the International Meteor Organization (Imo.org) predicts 100 at peak. You won’t see that amount.
Naval Observatory astronomer Geoff Chester suggests finding a dark area late in the evening (Aug. 11) to watch the shooting stars. You won’t need binoculars or a telescope. Chill your favorite drink, get comfortable in a lawn chair, face the northeast toward the constellation Perseus if you can and look up.
“The Perseids are very fast,” Chester said. “They can be quite bright and some of the brighter ones will leave a persistent train behind them for a few seconds.”
Shooting stars are specs in a dusty trail left behind by comets — in this case Comet Swift-Tuttle. When Earth travels through the comet path, those specs strike our planet’s atmosphere, burn up and streak through our heavens.
If it is cloudy on Aug. 11-12, try the next night, Chester said, “The Perseids peak is broad and could last until the following night.”
Blaine Friedlander can be reached at SkyWatchPost@gmail.com.
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