Monday, August 6, 2012

The Night Sky in August: Featuring A Blue Moon

Here are some objects for the unaided eye for the month of August. All of these objects, although small, should be visible without the help of binoculars or a telescope, so long as you have clear dark skies.

Light pollution is a killer for seeing these objects with your unaided eye. To find out how dark your location is, use the Google Map Overlay of light pollution. If you are in a blue, gray or black area then you should have dark enough skies. You may still be able to see some of these objects in a green location. If you aren’t in a dark sky location you may still be able to see these objects with a pair of binoculars or telescope.

You can find help locating the night sky objects listed below by using one of the free sky charts at Skymaps.com (scroll down to Northern Hemisphere Edition and click on the PDF for August 2012).

If you are not familiar with what you see in the night sky, this is a great opportunity to step outside, look up, and begin learning the constellations. The sky is beautiful and filled with many treasures just waiting for you to discover them. Once you have looked for these objects go through the list again if you have a pair of binoculars handy, the views get better!

Measuring Degrees with your hands, proportionally works for people of all ages. With your arm fully extended out:

Width of your pinky finger is 1°

Width of your ring, middle, and index finger equals 5°

Width of your fist equals 10°

Width from tip to tip of index finger and pinky finger stretched out equals 15°

Width from tip to tip of your thumb and pinky finger stretched out equals 25°

Highlight for viewing with the unaided eye

This month we will have a Blue Moon. This doesn’t mean that the Moon will literally be blue, but what it does mean is that we have two full Moons this month which isn’t extremely rare, but worth taking note. The years 2011, 2014, and 2017 will not have a Blue Moon. The first full Moon of this month was on August 1st, and a Moon takes 29.5 days to become full again meaning that on August 31st we will experience our second full Moon, or Blue Moon of the month.

Perseid Meteor Shower

It’s always hard to catch a good meteor shower because there are many factors that come into play such as clear skies, temperature, moon phase, and whether or not it happens on a weekend. I’m happy to say that this year’s Perseids will happen on August 11/12 which is on a Saturday. We will have a crescent moon risings around 1am that night, but have no fear the Perseids meteors produce fast and bright meteors that shouldn’t be washed out by the moon light.

The best time to get out and view this meteor shower is after midnight, although I have had luck in recent years starting around 11pm. Also be sure to look in all directions of the sky, the radiant just points out where the meteors may come from, but they will be going in all directions of the sky.

If you have clear skies you can expect to see anywhere from 50-80 meteors in an hour with bright meteors crossing the sky. There will also be some eye candy of Jupiter and Venus rising in the East. As long as we have clear skies this could be a great show for meteors.

The Moon

August 9 – Last quarter Moon

August 11 – During the Perseids as you’re watching for meteors, also watch for the Moon and Jupiter as it passes 0.1° south of Jupiter

August 13 – The Moon passes 0.6° north of Venus

August 17 – New Moon occurs, darkest skies for getting out and enjoying the stars

August 21 – The Moon passes 1.0° south of the star Spica in Virgo, and 5° south of Saturn

August 22 – The Moon passes 2° south of Mars

August 24 – First Quarter Moon

August 26 – Although you cannot see the dwarf planet Pluto with the unaided eye, the Moon will pass 0.7° south of Pluto

August 31 – The second full Moon of the month occurs, making August a month having a Blue Moon.

Mercury

By mid month Mercury will be at it’s highest in the morning sky to the east just before sunrise as it reaches greatest western elongation a day after Venus. Hard to spot Mercury as even at it’s highest it will only reach 10° above the horizon, and may be lost in the glow of the twilight. Start looking for Mercury around August 11 it will shine at magnitude 1.0 and rises 80 minutes before sunrise, and by August 16 it will shine at -0.1 during greatest elongation. If the horizon is flat and clear of clouds you should be able to track Mercury until the months final week as it gets lower and lower on the horizon.

Venus

Joining Mercury will be Venus also at it’s highest by mid month in the morning skies as it reaches it’s greatest elongation on August 15. Venus dominates the morning sky with it’s brightness shining at -4.6 magnitude only dimming to -4.3 magnitude by the end of the month. Around mid August Venus will be at the feet of Gemini and by the end of the month Venus will be near the bright star Pollux in Gemini.

Mars and Saturn

Although Leo is just about gone, Mars has made a backwards motion across the sky towards Saturn in Virgo. During the last couple months if you have been watching you may have noticed that Mars was in the middle of Leo, and now if you look it is about 8° from Saturn. From August 7th to the 20th Mars and Saturn will be 5° apart. Mars shines a bit dimmer than Saturn in the sky at magnitude 1.1 while Saturn shines at magnitude 0.8°. By the end of August Mars continues it’s retrograde motion across the sky and will be 10° to the east of both Saturn and Spica.

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) also named Curiosity will makes it’s landing on August 6 around 1:30am EDT on the Martian surface.

Jupiter

Risings shortly before 2am in the East bright Jupiter shines at -2.2 magnitude and lies 5° north of the bright red star Aldebaran in Taurus. Throughout the month Jupiter slowly crosses Taurus, and ends the month in the middle of the constellation and rising shortly before midnight.

Photo Above: Radiant of the Perseid meteor shower via the astronomy freeware program Stellarium.

Michael Rector is an amateur astronomer with his own blog, Adirondack Astronomy. 

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Although he now lives in Clinton County, amateur astronomer Michael Rector has fond memories of spending time at Great Sacandaga and West Canada Lake where the skies are dark and the Milky Way is bright.

Michael writes about astronomy on his own blog Adirondack Astronomy and is interested in getting together with other star-gazers around the region. If you are interested in getting together for an occasional star party feel free to contact him at adirondackastronomer@gmail.com.







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