The beginning of this month marks half of the summer. The nights are getting longer and longer, as we slowly approach Autumn, offering us more time under the stars and planets and other heavenly wonders that always happen above us.
This month is filled with more than its usual share of highlights time as you enjoy, observe and understand these events. All four of the brightest planets will grace our evening sky for the entire month. They will be spread almost evenly across the sky and all visible at the same time, which is quite unusual. Not only are they all visible at the same time, but they are also close to the opposition when they are best and closest to Earth.
The Perseid meteor shower will have optimal conditions near New Moon this summer. You can expect about 50 meteors per hour under dark skies. As a bonus, another comet comes into our field of vision. This is called 21
We begin our evening tour with Venus. Our sister planet continues to shine while catching us in our orbits around the sun. It will reach the largest eastern extent of the sun on the 17th. This means that it will be illuminated exactly halfway, similar to a last quarter moon, but it will get brighter and bigger, even if it is less illuminated by the sun. Watch Venus catch up with Spica in the Jungfrau. The couple will be just one step apart on the last day of the month, half an hour after sunset deep in the western evening sky.
Then continue along the ecliptic constellation to the east and you will encounter Jupiter in Libra. The King of the Planets is the farthest from the opposition of this great quartet of bright planets, visible all month long. Jupiter was in opposition on May 10, so it gets a little smaller and weaker as we leave it in our respective orbits around the sun.
Be aware that we recently discovered 12 more moons of Jupiter for new planets on the edge of our solar system. One of these moons orbits the planet in the opposite direction of a large group of moons farther from Jupiter so that it is likely to soon invade one of those moons. All new ones are only one to two miles wide.
So now we are up to 79 moons, mostly around every planet in our solar system. Juno still gets great pictures and sounds from Jupiter and it should be there by 2021.
Then continue 25 degrees east along the Ecliptic through Scorpius in Sagittarius and your eyes will land on Saturn. Only a month after the opposition, the ringed planet is still in decline or in the West. Note that just before you reach the beautiful Trifid and Lagoon Nebula on one arm of the Milky Way, it will be just over the center of our galaxy, 30,000 light-years away. These two blurred spots of our sky are also visible without a telescope.
However, I recommend using a telescope or good binoculars to better appreciate these colorful stellar nurseries, which are about 5000 light-years away.
Then 20 degrees or so into the neighboring constellation Capricorn and you will experience a very amazing spectacle. As Mars rises from the ocean at sunset, it can almost be considered a second sun, although it is over 100 times smaller. Its remarkable gold-orange color is further reddened by our atmosphere until it rises higher in our sky as the earth continues to rotate. At only 35.8 million miles away, Mars is now closer, bigger and brighter than ever since August 2003, when the red planet was best in 60,000 years when modern humans began to leave Africa.
Mars will stay brighter than Jupiter the whole month, which is also very unusual. The last time I looked at it through a telescope, I saw some dark markings on its surface, along with a hint of both polar caps. Try capturing some of these details before huge dust storms engulf those features. This is called the perihelion opposition because Mars is closest to the Sun and closest to Earth at the same time. Although Mars will reach its next opposition in just 26 months in October 2020, as we embark on the next mission to Mars, it will not be as close to August 2287 as it is now.
Catch as many Perseids as you can this month. Caused by Comet Swift-Tuttle, you can expect up to 50 meteors per hour in the early hours of September 12th. This comet returns only once every 133 years, and most recently in 1992. This means that we will not have increased numbers of meteorites caused by the proximity of the actual comet, but at least there will not be a moon that could disturb our consideration (19659002) Watch as these tiny, grain-sized pieces of cometary dust burn in our atmosphere and leave behind brilliant streaks of ionized light, caused by their high speed of 40 miles per second, or twice as fast as we orbit the sun. Perseids can be seen anytime this month, but they will peak on the 12th. If you can trace the meteor back to Perseus in the sky, it will rise at about 11 o'clock. in the northeast you know it was caused by this comet as we traverse its dust and debris path every year.
New Moon will see a partial eclipse over Northern Europe and Asia this month. Only 75 percent of the sun will be covered at most, so it will be nothing like last summer's unique American total solar eclipse. Seeing and photographing the eclipse gave me a much more real sense of where we are in the solar system and what extremely fast and continuous movement we are going through.
The incredible power of our Sun dominated the Otherworldly scene as their shimmering, ethereal corona sent out streamer that spanned millions of miles into space many times the diameter of their source. I felt the shadow of the giant moon fly at almost triple the speed of sound across me and the entire landscape in the high-altitude Teton Valley in eastern Idaho. That was just the beginning of the next 139 seconds of the most exalted experience you can imagine. The planets and a few stars immediately appeared with a 360-degree sunset around us, giving me a complete sense of the Earth's life-giving atmosphere, far from any sunrise or sunset, no matter how beautiful.
I was moved from this familiar planet to a whole new world when all man-made time stood still in that eternal moment of all-encompassing beauty and grace. An infinitely luminous and numinous universe, so far beyond any human understanding, revealed itself only for a moment. Nobody can remain unchanged after such an experience.
Aug. 1: Maria Mitchell was born on this day in 1818. She established the orbit of a new comet and made many other significant contributions to astronomy, becoming America's first female professional astronomer.
August 4: The Phoenix mission to Mars was launched on this day in 2007. The last quarter moon is at 2:19 pm.
August 6: The Curiosity Rover was launched to Mars on this day in 2012.
August 11: New moon is at 5:59 pm
Aug. 12: The Perseid meteor showers reach this Sunday morning.
. 13 August: The Moon is just over Venus tonight.
August 18: Moon of the first quarter is at 3:50 pm
Aug. 20: The Moon is close to Saturn tonight.
August 25: The Spitzer infrared telescope was launched in 2003 on this day.
August 26: The full moon is at 7:51 am and is also called Sturgeon or Grain Moon. Mercury can be seen deep in the eastern morning sky.
August 31: Venus is only 30 minutes past sunset one degree below Spica in the maiden tonight.
Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England