August is upon us and it’s a fabulous month to be casting your gaze upwards! With the annual Perseids meteor shower peaking and a darkening of nighttime skies things are getting exciting. Couple that with NASA’s latest mission to Mars due to touch down and it’s a bumper month for all things space.
It’s also a wonderful time to watch the clouds roll by too – there’s a lot to be seen by just looking up! Check out the Cloud Appreciation Society.
Click to embiggen any of the images below.
The Phases of the Moon
Two full Moons grace the nightsky this August. The second of which (on the 31st) is often known as a Blue Moon.
A thin crescent Moon around the morning of the 12th August will guide you to two of the brightest points of light in the sky – the planets Jupiter and Venus… something to check out whilst looking for the Perseids streaking across the sky!
Full Moon: 2nd August, 03:27
Last Quarter: 9th August, 18:55
New Moon: 17th August, 15:54
First Quarter: 24th August, 13:54
Full Moon: 31st August, 13:58
(times above are in Universal Time, UT)
The Planets you can see
Jupiter can be seen rising to the North East around midnight through August 2012 with Venus just a few hours behind. Stay up till sunrise and you’ll see them all night. Mercury too is up just in front of the Sun for early risers.
Look to the South Western horizon just after sunset to glimpse Saturn and Mars.
Neptune is in opposition on 24th August, but along with Uranus can only be viewed with the aid of binoculars or a telescope.
The Perseids Meteor Shower
One of the highlights of any year in astronomy, the Perseids meteor shower begins in late July and runs through till the latter half of August. The peak and best time to view though runs from evening of 11th into the morning of the 12th August.
Viewers will be helped by a waning crecent Moon then which will mean less light-pollution had it been a full Moon. You’ll also be treated to both Jupiter and Venus either side of that Moon.
These meteors appear to radiate from the constellation of Perseus (which is why they are given their name). They are actually leftover debris from the comet Swift-Tuttle on its 130 year orbit of the Sun and you’ll see around 60 meteors per hour (also sometimes known as shooting stars) in all parts of the sky.
The constellation of Perseus
In Greek mythology the hero Perseus chopped off the Gorgon, Medusa’s head and used its ability to turn whatever looked at it to stone in order to save the beautiful princess Andromeda, who was chained to the rocks by the coast, from the sea monster Cetus.
Whilst not the most obvious of constellations to find in the night sky, it was one of 48 constellations to feature in 2nd Century Greek astronomer Ptolemy’s almanac. Perhaps the most famous star is the eye of Medusa – Algol – a variable, triple star system. This is 3 stars orbiting one another changing the apparent brightness of the ‘star’ we see from Earth over a period of just a few days. The brightest star in the constellation though is Mirphak.
An asterism to try find
The swan, eagle and harp form one of the best known asterisms – the Summer Triangle.
What else is happening in space?
The next phase of exploring Mars
Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory from NASA is edging ever closer to its destination. All being well, it’ll reach the surface of Mars around the 5th or 6th of August (depending where you are in the world).
During its two year mission, Curiosity will be searching for signs of conditions suitable for microbial life, and indeed, if there is, or ever was, any there.