The Sky This Month – August 2016

perseidIn many ways, August is the best month for stargazing. For northern-hemisphere observers, the weather is still warm but much of the unsettled and humid summer air dissipates and skies become, on average, drier and clearer. Observers in the southern hemisphere enjoy warmer weather as winter nears an end, and the center of the Milky Way, the starriest part of the night sky, still lies just past overhead. And of course, the Perseid meteor shower peaks this month, with some reports suggesting it could be spectacular this year. There are also plenty of planets to see in the evening sky. Here’s what’s going on in the night sky this month:

2 August. New Moon, 20:45 UT

5 August. About 30-45 minutes after sunset, look for Jupiter, the slender crescent Moon, Mercury, and Venus in a long diagonal line in the western sky. You may need binoculars to spot Mercury and Venus because the sky will be still be quite bright.

Jupiter, the crescent Moon, Mercury, and Venus about 45 minutes after sunset in the western sky on August 5, 2016.

Jupiter, the crescent Moon, Mercury, and Venus about 45 minutes after sunset in the western sky on August 5, 2016.

10 August. First Quarter Moon, 18:21 UT

11-12 August. The Perseid meteor shower peaks after midnight. The shower, the most reliable of the year, typically shows 60 meteors per hour. They all trace their paths back to a point in the constellation Perseus.  The Perseids are best in the northern hemisphere, but southerners may see a few too. This year, the waxing gibbous Moon will brighten the sky before midnight, but it will slowly get out of the way shortly afterward. Some astronomers suggest this may be an unusually active year for the Perseids, with perhaps more than a hundred meteors per hour in the pre-dawn hours of August 12.

Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter in the western sky after sunset as seen from 35 degrees SOUTH latitude.

Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter in the western sky after sunset as seen from 35 degrees SOUTH latitude.

16 August. Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation some 27° from the Sun. For northern observers, the planet is just 6° above the horizon on this day. Southern-hemisphere observers get a much better view of Mercury between Jupiter and Venus (see above image). The little planet lies nearly 20° above the horizon at mid-southern latitudes.

18 August. Full Moon, 9:27 UT

24 August. Saturn, Mars, and Antares line up in a tidy row in the southern sky (for northern observers) and well overhead (for southern observers). Both planets are fading in brightness now, Mars quite quickly, so have a look at them with your telescope while you can. Saturn, which shines with a pale yellow glow, is still spectacular; red-orange Mars is less so. Mars drops in brightness from magnitude -0.8 to -0.3 this month, still outshining Antares. Saturn drops to magnitude +0.5 by month’s end.

Mars passes between the bright star Antares and the planet Saturn as seen at 10 pm local time on August 24, 2016.

Mars passes between the bright star Antares and the planet Saturn as seen at 10 pm local time on August 24, 2016. In the southern hemisphere, this vista appears just west of overhead.

25 August. Last Quarter Moon, 3:41 UT.

25 August. The last-quarter Moon occults the star Aldebaran in the late morning or early afternoon, depending on location. You can easily spot the Moon with your unaided eye. It’s at nearly a right angle to the Sun and well east of the Sun. Even a modest telescope will show Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus, in daylight. The event is visible in the southern United States, northern Mexico, Hawaii, and Papua New Guinea. You can get detailed timing here. And remember– even if you’re in a location where Aldebaran does not pass behind the Moon, have a look anyway. This is a good chance to see a bright star in daylight with your scope, and possibly even with binoculars.

27 August. Look low in the west after sunset, about 8 p.m. local time, to spot the dazzling spectacle of bright Jupiter and brighter Venus within 0.1º of each other.

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