Go stargazing! August Edition

August 1, 2008

Saturn portrait
Creative Commons License photo credit: Elsie esq.

Jupiter is well placed for observing this month.  It outshines everything else in the night sky this month unless the Moon is present.  It is therefore easy to find in the southeast at dusk.  Saturn leaves the evening sky this month.  Earth is moving around to the far side of the Sun from Saturn, hiding Saturn from our point of view. The same thing is happening to Mars.  However, Mars moves faster than Saturn, so it takes longer for Earth to pass ‘behind’ the Sun from its perspective.  Mars, therefore, remains low in the west through all of August and part of September.   Look for a point of light, of average brightness, that shifts position each night against the background stars in the west.  That’s Mars.  Venus is lost in the Sun’s glare, and will remain out of sight through the end of the summer. 

Starry Night
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mike9Alive

The brightest star in the sky this evening is Arcturus, which you can find by extending the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle (‘arc to Arcturus’).  Arcturus, the fourth brightest star we can ever see at night, is currently the brightest star because the top three are not visible in Houston during the month of August.  The Big Dipper happens to be to the left of the North Star at dusk this month.  The constellation Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south at dusk.  Sagittarius, the Archer, known for its ‘teapot’ asterism, is to Scorpius’s left (Jupiter is in Sagittarius).  High in the east, look for the enormous Summer Triangle, consisting of the stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair.   This triangle was up all night long in June and July, hence its name.  The Summer Triangle is highest at dusk, however, from late August to October. 

Moon Phases in August 2008:

New               August 1, 5:13 am; August 30, 2:58pm
1st Quarter    August 8, 1:20 pm
Full                August 16, 4:17 pm
Last Quarter   August 23, 6:50 pm

The New Moon of August 1 lines up so well with the Earth and the Sun that it casts its shadow on the Earth.  Thus, it causes a total solar eclipse.  The path of totality begins in the arctic islands north of Canada, then edges northern Greenland and crosses the Arctic Ocean into Siberia, and ends in northern China.  People in much of Greenland, Europe, and Asia will see a partial eclipse.  No eclipse is visible in the United States, however.

The Full Moon of August 16 goes almost completely into the Earth’s shadow, resulting in a very deep, partial lunar eclipse.  This lunar eclipse is visible from the Eastern Hemisphere and from Brazil (where it is night while the Moon is in shadow).  North America has daytime during this event, so we completely miss it here.

The Perseid Meteor Shower peaks every year in mid-August.  This year, the peak time is the morning of Tuesday, August 12.  We always see more meteors in pre-dawn hours than just after sunset.  The meteors aren’t running into us; we’re running into them.  Accordingly, the leading edge of the Earth—the side going from night into day–is facing the meteors.  Under ideal conditions, you should see 1 or 2 meteors per minute, on average.  Clouds or bright city lights, which hide meteors, will lower that number.  The large gibbous Moon that night will also hide the dimmer meteors, but it sets in the morning hours as the shower peaks. 

Creative Commons License photo credit: twinxamot

Our George Observatory will be open the night of August 11-12 for observing the Perseids.

Want to learn more about Astronomy?
Learn about Caesar, the Roman calendar, and the start of the month of July.
Look into the night sky in July.
Did you know escaping slaves used the north star as a guide?

Authored By James Wooten

James is the Planetarium Astronomer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. He teaches students every school morning in the planetarium, and also answers astronomy questions from the public.

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