Seeing Stars With James Wooten: August 2012

August 2, 2012

Mars remains an evening object. It is in the southwest at dusk and has already entered Virgo, where Saturn also sits. This summer, you can watch Mars quickly approach Saturn, which it will pass on August 15.

Saturn is in the southwest at dusk this month just above the star Spica in Virgo, forming a nice triangle with Mars. Watch this triangle change shape as Mars approaches and then passes Saturn.

Jupiter emerges higher into the morning sky this month. Look for it high in the east at dawn; it outshines all stars in that direction.

August sky map

Venus, although farther from Jupiter than last month, is still getting higher and higher in the sky each morning.

The Big Dipper is to the left of the North Star, with its handle pointing up. From that handle, you can ‘arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’; those stars are in the west at dusk.

Antares, brightest star of Scorpius, the Scorpion, is in the south, with the ‘teapot’ of Sagittarius behind it. The Summer Triangle approaches the zenith (overhead point). By late evening, Pegasus — with its distinctive Great Square — has risen in the east.

Moon Phases in August 2012:
Full                                  August 1, 10:26 pm; August 31, 8:57 pm
Last Quarter                  August 9, 1:56 pm
New                                August 17, 10:53 am
1st Quarter                    August 24, 8:54 am

Just after midnight CDT on Monday, August 6, the rover Curiosity is scheduled to land on Mars. If all goes well, NASA will have a much bigger rover on the Red Planet, designed to explore a range of 5 by 20 kilometers for at least one Mars year (687 Earth days).  Curiosity’s four scientific objectives are: 1) determine if Mars ever had life, 2) study the climate of Mars, 3) study the geology of Mars, and 4) prepare for a possible human mission to Mars.

The Perseid Meteor Shower peaks every year around mid-August; this year it’s Sunday, August 12. Our George Observatory will remain open from Saturday night, August 11, through dawn on the 12th for observing the shower. However, any dark site where you can lie on your back and watch much of the sky at once will suffice. Keep in mind that the farther you are from city lights, the more meteors you’ll see.

As usual, you will see more meteors in pre-dawn hours than right after dusk. This is because the Earth is running into the stream of meteors rather than the other way around. As a result, the leading edge of the Earth — the side going from night to day — encounters the meteors. Meteors will seem to radiate from a constellation called Perseus (hence the name “Perseids”). In August, Perseus rises in the northeast at dusk and is high in the north at dawn. Thus, meteors will seem to radiate from the northeast.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

During the summer, we have public nights on Fridays as well.  We are also now offering Sun-Day activities, featuring solar observation, on Sundays from noon to 5.

To enjoy the stars in any weather from the comfort of the HMNS Planetarium, click here for a full schedule.

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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