What’s up in August? Still plenty to see the planetary dance slows down

SKY GUIDE: This map represents the night sky as it appears over Maine during August. The stars are shown as they appear at 10:30 pm early in the month, at 9:30 pm at midmonth, and at 8:30 pm at month’s end. Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune are shown at their midmonth positions. To use the map, hold it vertically and turn it so that the direction you are facing is at the bottom. Sky Chart prepared by Seth Lockman

The month of August is named for Augustus Caesar, just as July was named for Julius Caesar. This is the last full month of summer already and also the hottest time of the year since it takes about half a season for the land and water to really warm up after the sun reached its highest point on June 21, the summer solstice. The opposite is true in winter since the coldest days occur about six weeks after the sun reached its lowest point in the sky on the winter solstice.

These are known as the “dog days” of summer since the Greeks and Romans falsely thought that the combined heat of Sirius, the Dog Star, along with our sun when they are close together in the sky at this time of year would create a lot of extra heat on Earth at this time of year. We now know that Sirius is 8.8 light years away and could not possibly create any extra heat on Earth at that huge distance of about 50 trillion miles. Sirius is one of the closest stars to us after Alpha and Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years, but that is still much too far away to create any extra heat on Earth. This was only one of many misconceptions that ancient people had, even though they were potentially as smart as we are, they just did not have the technology to learn what is really happening.

The great planetary alignment broke up early last month, but four of our five brightest planets are still visible in order in our morning sky along with Uranus and Neptune sprinkled in with the other four. The next time all seven planets will be visible with the five bright ones in sequence from the sun will be 100 years from now, 2122. The gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, will once again rule the night sky by the end of this month when Jupiter rises by 9 pm and Saturn will already be up by sunset, since it reaches opposition, when it rises exactly at sunset, on Aug. 14. Jupiter will reach its own opposition next month on Sept. 26, soon after fall will start.

The next Mars season is now upon us leading up to its opposition around the winter solstice this year. Mars only reaches opposition every 26 months compared to about every 13 months for Jupiter and Saturn. Mars will double in brightness over that time. The red planet is already brighter than Saturn and Mercury, but it will not get as bright as Jupiter or Venus.

Mercury will be visible low in the western evening sky all month. The Perseid meteor shower peaks on Aug. 12, but the moon is full on Aug. 11 so most of these meteors will be washed out by moonlight. It will still be worth looking for the brighter fireballs and remember that this entire shower lasts from July 17 to Aug. 24, so you can catch some of them when the moon is not yet full or after the full moon. Then Comet C/2017 K2 (PanSTARRS) may brighten to 7th magnitude in Scorpius this month, so look for it with a good pair of binoculars or a small telescope when the moon is not full.

The real highlights for this month are not anything that will happen over our local skies. That is the release of the first few stunning and dramatic images from the Webb Space Telescope unveiled last month. They are the result of over 20 years of hard work by about 20,000 scientists and engineers from all over the world, a true testament of what can be accomplished when we work well together and severe in the face of extreme odds, inventing amazing new technology on the fly as we went along over that time period that has already borne rich fruit.

The JWST is performing beyond expectations and may continue to produce such incredible images for about 20 more years since its launch went so perfectly that it has plenty of fuel left to continue to make great discoveries for us and answer many questions that we had not even thought to ask yet.

On a different note, but no less spectacular, there is one more highlight which may occur on Aug. 29 of this month or early next month. That is the launch of the largest and most powerful rocket in the world every created in our 200,000 history of modern humans or at any other time. That is the launch of the Artemis 1 mission to the moon carrying the new Orion capsule, which can carry up to six astronauts, compared to just three for Apollo. Artemis is the mythological sister of Apollo, so that is a perfect name for our next lunar missions. I was lucky enough to sit in a mock-up of the Orion capsule and to learn much more about the Artemis mission while I was visiting the Johnson Space Center in Houston a few years ago, which I highly recommend to everyone even remotely interested in space and our place in it and what we have learned so far and how much we can continue to learn as we apply ourselves in this new golden age of space and making it more accessible and understandable for every one of us.

This is an uncrewed mission, but they will have three mannequins aboard with the interesting names of Helga, Zohar, and Commander Moonikin Campos, in honor of Arturo Campos, a key player in bringing Apollo 13 and its three astronauts back to Earth safely. They will have many sensors on them to check the radiation levels and several other factors. Artemis 2 is already scheduled to launch in May 2024, just after the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse visible right here over Maine.

AUGUST HIGHLIGHTS

aug. 1: Mars passes close to Uranus in the morning sky. Maria Mitchell was born in 1818. She was the first woman professional astronomer and discovered a comet.

aug. 4: The Phoenix mission to Mars was launched on the day in 2007.

aug. 5: First quarter moon is at 7:07 am

aug. 6: The Curiosity Rover was launched to Mars on this day in 2012.

aug. 7: Venus passes close to Pollux in Gemini this morning. John Mather was born in 1946. He won the Nobel prize in physics in 2006 for his work with COBE on the cosmic microwave background radiation, proving the Big Bang. He just retired as the chief scientist on the JWST, so we have him to thank (along with thousands of others) for the great images so far.

aug. 10: The moon is at perigee, or closest to Earth at 223,587 miles today.

aug. 11: Full moon is at 9:36 pm This is also known as the Grain, Green Corn, Sturgeon, or Blueberry Moon.

aug. 12: The Perseid Meteor shower peaks this morning.

aug. 14: The moon passes near Neptune this morning. Saturn is at opposition.

aug. 15: The moon passes near Jupiter this morning.

aug. 16: The moon passes near Uranus this morning.

aug. 19: Last quarter moon is at 12:36 am The moon passes just north of Mars this morning.

aug. 22: The asteroid Vesta is at opposition. The moon is at apogee at 251,915 today.

aug. 25: The moon passes near the dwarf planet Ceres tonight and near Venus this morning.

aug. 27: New moon is at 4:17 am Mercury reaches greatest eastern elongation.

– Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.


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