Astronomy is the universe of the seen and unseen. For me, it’s about finding ways to show the sky to people. I love things that change. Jupiter and Saturn have changing cloud bands and dancing moons. Even our unchanging moon goes through phases modulating the light and shadows that help us see places on the moon, including places we’ve visited. What about the stuff we ‘can’t’ see? More on that later.
August Summary Jupiter and Saturn call for our attention after sunset. Venus and Mars hide in the glare of the Summer sun. Mercury peeks out into the morning sky, perhaps to see if it’s safe for Venus and Mars to come out this Fall, and then goes back to tell them.
More Moon If you missed viewing our Moon in July, the dates for best viewing of the Apollo 11 landing site start in the evening sky on August 6, this month’s date when the sun angle is nearly the same as during the landing of Apollo 11 in Mare Tranquillitatis.
Oh, Jupiter! Due south before the end of twilight, the planet looks like it wants to leave town fast. Take some time with Jupiter and a telescope; it’s as if Jupiter is in the shop for a change of belts and badly out of round tire-shaped Great Red Spot. The Moon sits atop Jupiter on the 9th.
Saturn follows Jupiter, highest 10 to 11pm. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, swings out widest from the planet on the 3rd, 11th, 19th, 27th. The rings tilt 24½ degrees wide from Earth’s point of view. Saturn appears to scoot across the Moon’s north pole on the 12th and 13th.
August’s Super New Moon On the 30th, a “super” new moon is closest to Earth only five hours after new moon. Let’s hope no hurricanes approach land during this and the following days of already larger-than-normal tides.
The Perseids meteors peak on the 12th/13th, but the moon is almost full that night. Take advantage of the many Perseids that arrive before the peak. Go out early in the month, when the moon is less bright, get the bright lights out of your eyes, and look for Perseids and other meteors then. Viewing after twilight may be better for this shower than most. Generally, the Earth runs into more meteors during the morning, but the apparent source in the constellation Perseus is above the horizon most of the night. You might even see some bright, long trail meteors at the shower’s peak just after evening twilight on the 12th.
Satellite Sightings The International Space Station is visible evenings through the 8th, and mornings starting on the 24th. China’s Tiangong 2 was coaxed to reenter into the Earth’s atmosphere over the Southern Pacific Ocean on July 19th, 40 years after the USA’s Skylab fell into Indian Ocean and some parts showered Australia July 11, 1979.
Solar Limbo Dancing Mercury is low in the morning sky, actually getting brighter even as it moves further away from us. Even though its size shrinks, more of the innermost planet is illuminated as the month goes on. It swings farthest out from the Sun on the 9th. Venus reaches superior conjunction in back of the Sun on the 14th. Mars has one more month to reach its solar conjunction.
As for the stuff we can’t see. Sometimes it’s looking deeper in a larger telescope or catching the light taken from professional telescopes around the world and in space. I keep going back to the SOHO satellite. It’s life has been extended several times by creative folks at the Goddard Spaceflight Center and the European Space Agency. This month, it lets us see the planets in the traffic jam in the solar glare. At star parties, we get questions about the planets – “When’s Mars coming out?” Too close to the Sun, we tell them. But, for the last third of the month, Venus and Mars hang together near the Sun in the SOHO view, as close as a third of a degree apart on the 24th. Regulus sits in the background. Mercury joins the club late in the month.