This Viking 1 orbiter image shows the thin atmosphere of Mars. Mars' closest approach to us since 2003 is this month, and the moon will be very close to Mars August 22 and 23. Image courtesy NASA.
Meteor Shower, Milky Way, Four Planets for Viewing in August
BY JONATHAN TRUAX, ASTRONOMER, MUSKEGON COMMUNITY COLLEGE'S CARR-FLES PLANETARIUM
This month, clear skies are frequent and darkness comes earlier than last month. Determined sky watchers can view all five naked eye planets in the August sky, enjoy a meteor shower, and see the Milky Way if you observe away from the city lights.
During the month of August, sky watchers can view four naked eye planets in the evening sky. Begin looking westward about 30 minutes after sunset. Low to the southwestern horizon, but very bright, locate the planet Venus. The waxing crescent moon will be near Venus the nights of August 13 and 14. Venus is paired with the bright star Spica the night of August 31.
Higher above and left of Venus locate the bright planet Jupiter. The first quarter moon is very near Jupiter the nights of August 16 and 17.
About an hour after sunset, face south and look about a third of the way from the horizon to the overhead point and locate Saturn as a bright yellow “star.” Saturn is dimmer than Jupiter, but brighter than most stars. The waxing gibbous moon is very near Saturn on the nights of August 20 and 21.
This month, brilliant Mars is located in the southeast after sunset. Just one after Earth’s closest approach since 2003 Mars still rivals Jupiter in brightness. The waxing moon is close to Mars the nights of August 22 and 23.
Mercury is a dawn planet late in the month. Locate Mercury as a bright white “star” visible about an hour before sunrise low in the east below the twin stars Castor and Pollux of Gemini the Twins.
The month of August bears witness to this year’s best meteor shower. The Perseid Meteor Shower reaches peak activity the mornings of August 12 and 13. On those mornings, sky watchers normally can expect to see up to 60 meteors per hour radiating from the northeast constellation of Perseus. This year the moon presents no problems, so expect a great shower if skies are clear. Meteors can be seen sunset to dawn starting on the night of the 11th. But the highest activity will be during the predawn hours of the 12th and 13th.
As darkness falls after sunset this month, high in the northwest, locate the “Big Dipper” formed by the stars of Ursa Major. High in the western sky, locate Arcturus of Bootes, the brightest star of summer. High in the Eastern sky, nearly overhead, locate three bright stars all blue or white in color, forming the “Summer Triangle.” Low and to the northeast is Deneb, of Cygnus the Swan. Higher in the east is Vega, of Lyra the Harp. Furthest south of the trio is Altair, of Aquila the Eagle. By dawn the “Summer Triangle” can be found low in the west. Low in the northeast, the “W” shaped pattern of stars forming Cassiopeia is rising.
This month after sunset, the summer Milky Way stretches from low in the south, through the eastern sky, down to the northeast horizon. For the best views of the Milky Way, observe away from city lights, and on the nights between August 1 and the 15th, when the moon is not bright in the evening sky.
This month as dawn twilight begins, look high in the east to locate the bright orange star Aldebaran of Taurus, one of the brightest stars of winter. Nearly overhead is the Pleiades star cluster. The waning moon will be near the cluster the mornings of the 5th and 6th. Low near the eastern horizon, observers can locate the winter constellations of Orion, Gemini, and Canis Major just rising.
The MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium presents free of charge “Oasis in Space” Tuesdays and Thursdays, August 28 through October 30, at 7:00 p.m. Visit the MCC Carr-Fles Planetarium website for upcoming events and call (231) 777-0289 for sky show information. Carr-Fles Planetarium is located on the Muskegon Community College campus in Room 135. Thanks to the generosity of the Reach for the Stars campaign donors, you can now experience the all-new Carr-Fles Planetarium, featuring state-of-the-art digital projection, sound and lighting systems; all-new library of shows; and modern theater seating and domed ceiling.