August always brings us the most watched meteor shower of the year, the Perseids, which peak on the night of August 12/13. They are the most watched because the weather is comfortable in August. This year the Moon is New at this time, so there will be no interference from it when viewing the meteors. Best views will be before dawn (between 2 and 5 am) on August 13th, when Perseus, the constellation from which the meteors appear to come, is highest in the north-eastern sky. We can expect to see as many as 60 to 120 meteors per hour (1 or 2 every minute).
The mid to late summer evening nights of August provide plenty of dazzling views of planets for sky-watchers this year, whether we look with the unaided eye or through a telescope or binoculars. Looking west as dusk settles, one can’t miss Venus which brightens fro –4.3 to –4.6 this month. The only drawback will be that Venus will have lost the altitude it had earlier this summer as its orbit starts to take it now between us and the Sun. Venus will only be 10 degrees high on August 1st, so it will set only an hour or so after full darkness. The waxing crescent Moon will be 10 degrees to the right of Venus on August 13th, and 7 degrees above the planet on August 14th.
Look back east —- that is left of Venus —— to find Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars in that order. Jupiter lies among the stars of Libra near its brightest star, Zubenelgenubi (I just love that name!). At magnitude –2.0, Jupiter is 100 times brighter than this 2nd magnitude star. Jupiter will be seen best in the southwestern sky at the end of twilight when it will be highest in the sky. On the 17th, the Moon will pass just 5 degrees above the giant planet.
About 50 degrees east (left) of Jupiter is Saturn, the ringed planet, at magnitude +0.3 in Sagittarius. Through binoculars or telescope, Saturn will shine in yellowish light, and will then be seen among the many nebulae and star clusters of the summer Milky Way found in this part of the sky. The star-studded area of the sky is marvelous to scan with binoculars, as we look toward the center of our galaxy.
Mars gets top-billing as the planet of the month, especially during August’s first two weeks. Mars reached opposition in late July, and is at its maximum brightness and size on August 1st. So look at it early in the month, for by the 31st, it will have dropped to –2.1 magnitude and appear 15% smaller. But even those month-end view will be impressive; Mars has not been so close to us since 2003. Through a telescope at 100 power magnification, Mars will look as big as a Full Moon looks in the sky with the unaided eye on August 1st!
Mars unfortunately is low in the southern sky, between Sagittarius and Capricornus, and its greatest altitude on August 1st is not reached until around 1 am. It reaches that altitude by 10:30 pm on August 31st, but by then, it will have dimmed. This highest altitude point is about 25 degrees above the southern horizon.
Do not miss this opportunity to view Mars this August. It will not be this close again for another 15 years.
Mercury pops up for sky-watchers before dawn, 18 degrees west of (in front of) the Sun on August 26th. This will place it 5 to 10 degrees above the eastern horizon 45 minutes before sun-up.
There is lots to see this month in our skies and with warm summer nights it is comfortable to get out and look, even though we miss a partial solar eclipse, which may be seen by sky-watchers only in northern Canada and Europe; and in much of Asia, on August 11th. Full Moon is on the 26th. Keep looking up!