Yes, the monthly round-up is back!
The nights are starting to roll in once more, though the clouds seem to have a greater effect than the apparent motion of the Sun through the sky… During the darkest hours, the Milky Way is visible overhead, and we still have planets during the night and at dawn. As ever, this post is illustrated with a few sky charts showing midnight on the first, last and fifteenth day of the month. The dots represent brighter stars, green circles are star clusters, nebulae, galaxies and the like and the very brightest stars, the Moon and the planets are named when they appear. Sky charts provided using Stellarium.
Noctilucent clouds have been putting on a very good show this season, which comes to an end around the end of this month, normally. But keep your eyes on the skies for these strange night shining clouds during August.
There will be no particularly bright occultations of stars by the Moon this month (save for one earlier in the month).
Asteroid Psyche will be at opposition, reaching the giddy heights of magnitude 9.3 on the 5th.
One highlight of the month will be the Perseid meteor shower, offering peak rates of 80-100 an hour on the evening of the 12th of August. An enhanced comet trail from Swift-Tuttle should add to the peak times, so expect a fair few meteors on the 11th, 13th, 14th and 15th as well, with the Moon progressively darker on each night, allowing fainter meteors to be seen. The ‘radiant’, where the meteor tails appear to point towards, lies between Perseus (hence the name of the storm) and Cassiopeia. The best bet for meteor sightings is 50 degrees away from the radiant.
Jupiter is the king of the planets in the sky at the moment. Bright, easy to spot and risen at a useful time. Closest approach to the Moon this month is tonight. By mid August, Jupiter is 23 degrees above the horizon and shining at -2.9, reaching opposition on the 14th, at which point it will appear due south at midnight. As a result, Jupiter is as high at the end of the month at midnight as at the beginning, but further to the west.
Saturn hangs on by the skin of its teeth at the beginning of the month. Down to a magnitude of 1, the ringed planet appears further and further into the setting Sun in the evening, vanishing entirely by the middle of the month. Just before, on the 10th, the rings vanish entirely from our point of view. Only their shadow to be seen.
Uranus, at magnitude 5.9, rises between the time Jupiter does and the time Venus does. As the month goes on, it will get to a good altitude in the constellation of Pisces. Never quite a naked eye object in Kendal’s skies, it is best to check on the planet’s exact position before making an attempt to see it. It is a relatively bright object in even smaller telescopes or binoculars.
Neptune is magnitude 7.9 and can be found somewhere close to Jupiter. A low magnification should get the two planets in one place. Neptune is outshone by Jupiter, the four Galilean Moons and nearby stars at this time. Neptune reaches opposition on the 17th, appearing due south at midnight.
Mercury is rather difficult to spot (as ever). It is shining above magnitude 0 at the start of the month and dims to just below it at the end. It also hides in the sunlit dusk, moving in and around Saturn’s position. On the 16th it lies 3 degrees south of Saturn, on the 22nd it makes a line with Saturn and the crescent Moon. On the 24th, it is low in the sky but at greatest elongation (distance from the Sun).
Venus shines bright at magnitude -4 during the month in the early morning. During this time, Venus is on approach to the Sun, with its phase slowly waxing and apparent diameter falling. In the middle of the month, Venus will be 36 degrees west of the Sun and at an altitude of 27 degrees. On the 18th it will be close to the Moon.
Mars has returned to obvious naked eye visibility and is steadily increasing in magnitude and making its way west, having emerged from sunrise. The red planet is starting to glow above a magnitude of 1 and has grown in diameter such that bigger telescopes can start to see details. Mars will rise at midnight by the middle of the month, pass by the Moon on the 16th and move into Gemini in late August. On the 29th, Mars will pass by the open cluster M35.
A few things outside the solar system
The pinwheel and whirlpool galaxies as well as the owl nebula are all available to see this month in and around the Big Dipper, which soon rises overhead after sunset.
The Ring Nebula, M57 lies in the constellation of Lyra, between the stars gamma and beta Lyra. Lyra is also notable for the bright star Vega. The constellation lies to the west at sunset at the beginning of the month.
The Milky Way is a vast arch just to the East of Lyra, stretching across the sky. If you’re lucky enough to have a dark clear night, then it may be visible in the very darkest hours, looking rather like a broken thin cloud. This is our view towards the centre of our galaxy.
Lying along the Milky Way to the south is Cygnus the swan. Two nice sights can be seen topping and tailing the swan. The star representing its head, Albireo, is a well contrasting double star, with a bright yellow star besides a dimmer blue-green one. At the tail end, up and to the left of the tail star Deneb are a couple of clusters visible in binoculars – the North American Nebula and the Penguin Nebula, both named for what they appear to look like.
The Usual Stuff
If you want to watch satellites flaring or passing in the sky (even sometimes during the day), then go to Heavens Above to get times and directions. If you need assistance in deciding where things are in the sky, why not install the free program Stellarium, which does all the work for you? Finally, to avoid the dreaded clouds, Met Check gives a quick forecast and the Met satellites or other satellites can be used to track breaks in the cloud.
Stuart Atkinson and the Eddington Society will be hosting a Sun Watch at Abbot Hall Park on Saturday the 22nd, from 2pm onwards (fingers crossed for the first sighting of that thing this month… – the Sun, not Stuart!). This is part of his contribution to the International Year of Astronomy, 2009.
Kendal Museum and the Eddington Society will be opening an exhibition of astronomy pictures and display’s on Kendal’s astrophysical son Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington as part of the Royal Society’s Local Heroes scheme. This exhibition, called Our Amazing Universe opens on Thursday the 20th and runs until January, at which point a junior astronomical society will be inaugurated.
From the evening of the 11th of August through to the early hours of the 13th of August, Newbury Astronomical Society will be running a world-wide twitter #MeteorWatch. Follow @NewburyAS for further information, the successor to the twitter Moonwatch where pictures, questions, answers, observations and information were shared between twitter users during a virtual star party.
Events up and down the country are available from the IYA2009 events page. Plus why not pop along to the Eddington Society, which meets at Kendal Museum on the first Monday of the month? The meeting in September will be a beginner’s night, with contributions from the audience. We will have radio, visual, photographic and video observations of meteors along with other targets that rise unclouded in that time frame.
Don’t forget to check back here and on my twitter account for the latest astronomical events in this area.