Heads UP! for August 2014

Sesame Street had an entertaining and educational segment called ‘Near and Far’ with a Muppet running away from and toward our television screen, getting progressively more out of breath with each trip. Our ‘near and far’ in the month of August is more exhilarating than exhausting, with bright celestial objects passing near each other in our skies where one of the pair is near and the other is…well…farther.

On the 18th, low in the eastern morning sky, the two brightest planets in our skies align. Jupiter makes a close pass by Venus on its way to morning sky domination. Venus is “near” us at 150,600,000 miles and Jupiter “far” at 576,300,000 miles. Find a good vantage point open to the eastern sky. Venus and Jupiter will be within a degree or two of each other from the 16th through the 19th.

On the 31st, shortly after 1pm EDT, our Moon jumps in front of Saturn, from our point of view. Because Saturn is about a billion miles beyond the Moon, it is looks about the size of a lunar crater. The midday Sun and the low elevation of the Moon and the low surface brightness of Saturn will make either of the pair hard to see, but Saturn will be near the Moon the night before and after, making a pretty pair.

Mars and Saturn will waltz closer to each other this month, after Mars, Saturn and the first magnitude star Spica do a line dance across the southwestern sky after sunset, each about a fist-width apart in the sky for the first week of the month, with Mars 10.6 light minutes away, Saturn 1.3 light hours away and Spica 250 light years away.

Venus has been hanging out in the morning sky for a long time, since January, and Mars is going to have a long goodbye as well, staying low in the southwestern evening sky well into next year. In contrast, Saturn will be lapped by the Sun in a few months. They are so tiny, even in a telescope.

However, Saturn will be great fun to watch in a telescope! This month, the planet’s shadow will make a small notch in the rings, making Saturn look especially three-dimensional. Even with Saturn low in the sky, Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is visible.

This month, our Moon is closest to Earth the same day it is full, making our largest full moon of the year. This has little astronomical effect, but produces large effects on tides and internet bloggers as well as providing an opportunity for great photos with foreground scenes at moonset and moonrise on the 10th. Be alert for any coastal storm or hurricane, since the higher lunar tides will enhance any tidal surges around this time.

The Moon passes some lovely planets this month: Jupiter and Venus on the 23rd and Mars, Saturn and Spica for few nights around the beginning and end of the month. Uranus is visible near the Moon on the morning of the 18th, which will make Uranus easier to find. It was easier to find in my telescope, even with some twilight interfering.

The Perseid meteor shower peaks on the night of the 12th/13th. This is a reliable shower, but the nearly full moon will wash out the fainter meteors. To see some bright meteors, block out the Moon and look in the darkest part of the sky. It’s worth looking even a few days before and after the 13th.

This is a great month for the Milky Way overhead, on moonless nights, especially nice from places with dark skies. If you have an electronic camera with manual exposure settings, lock it down on a tripod or other study object and see how long an exposure you can take before the stars start to make trails. See how many stars you catch.

You’ll need clear skies and an open southern horizon to see the star clouds rising like ‘steam’ out of the ‘spout’ of the teapot at Sagittarius. Find a friend with south-facing beach-front property! Years ago, I had a great view of at star clusters in Sagittarius and Scorpius with my 60mm refractor at my wife’s uncle’s house near Horseneck Beach in Massachusetts. Binoculars can help find where to aim the telescope. It’s also better without the Moon; the first few days of the month and the last half of the month.

If you are packing the car for an August vacation at oh-so-early-in-the-morning, look east to see our friend Orion lying on the horizon. He’s probably resting before beginning the long ascent high into our winter skies.

The International Space Station sails through our skies every 95 minutes, but it is best seen in twilight; in the morning until through the 4th, and in the evening from August 2nd through the 24th.

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