August is one of my favorite months for viewing the night sky. Darkness comes a bit earlier, nights are warm, and the summer Milky Way is high overhead. This summer we’ll have the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn in the southern evening sky, one on each side of the Milky Way. August is summertime stargazing at its best.
Our days are getting shorter with the advance of the seasons. At the start of August, sunset comes at about 8:35 p.m. By the end of the month, it has moved back almost an hour to 7:46 p.m. We lose about an hour and a half of daylight during the month.
Start the month off by viewing the International Space Station, as it zooms overhead on the evening of Aug. 1. It will pass almost directly overhead at about 9:30 p.m. Check online at Heavens-above.com as time gets closer to get a more exact time to view. If you’ve not seen it, look for a very bright “star” moving across the sky from west to east. The ISS will also be visible on Aug. 2-5, but not as high in the sky as on Aug. 1.
At the start of August, we’ll have dark skies, with July’s new Moon having just occurred on July 31. Full Moon comes on Aug. 15, with August’s full Moon following on Aug. 30. On Aug. 9, you’ll find the waxing gibbous Moon just above the planet Jupiter, and on Aug. 11 just to the right of Saturn. If you are an early riser, late in the month you can see the waning Moon move through the constellations Taurus and Gemini in the early morning hours.
Jupiter and Saturn will be in excellent position to view in August. Both are just past their closest approach for the year, but will still shine bright in the southern sky, and offer excellent views in a telescope. They will rise earlier than in July and will be higher in the sky during evening hours.
Jupiter will be the easiest to find, it will be the brightest object in the southern sky. Find it almost due south. The next brightest star like object, to the left of Jupiter, is Saturn. If it is dark enough to see the Milky Way, you’ll note that Jupiter is on the right side of the star cloud, and Saturn is on the left side.
Both Jupiter and Saturn are excellent objects to view through a telescope, a good reason to visit the Goldendale Observatory’s temporary site at the Stonehenge Memorial near Maryhill. Jupiter’s four largest moons are easily visible, lined up along the planet’s equator, and changing position each night as they circle the giant planet. Bands of clouds in Jupiter’s atmosphere are visible, and sometimes the “great red spot” can be picked out.
On Aug. 3, Jupiter’s moon Io will move in front of the planet from our viewpoint. Although we will not be able to see the moon, the shadow will be visible as a dark spot, moving across Jupiter’s clouds.
You can check out that event at the Goldendale Observatory, or join me at the Trout Lake School that night, when I host stargazing as part of the Trout Lake Fair.
Saturn will appear much smaller than Jupiter in a telescope but will display its magnificent rings. As Saturn circles the Sun, each year we see the rings from a different angle. In 2024, the rings will be hard to see. Our line of sight will be parallel to the rings, and we’ll just see them as a line. The next couple of years are great times to view Saturn!
Our solar system neighbors, Venus and Mars, will not be visible in the night sky. Venus is very near the Sun from our view point and will be lost in the Sun’s glare. Mars is now on the far side of the Sun, and in our sky during the day.
Mercury is visible in the morning sky in mid-August, around Aug. 10. Like Venus, the other planet that is closer to the Sun than the Earth, Mercury never strays very far from the Sun in our sky. Look for it in the east-northeast, right before sunrise. It will be brighter than surrounding stars.
A famous meteor shower in August is the Perseid shower, peaking on the night of Aug. 12-13. Alas, this year the nearly full Moon will wash out our view of the less bright meteors.
The summer constellations are shining high overhead this month. Look for the bright star Vega, in the constellation Lyra, and the noticeable “northern cross” – the constellation Cygnus the Swan.
The big dipper, in the constellation Ursa Major, is in the northwest, with the bright “W” shaped constellation Cassiopeia in the northeast. In the south, look between Jupiter and Saturn – you’re looking at Sagittarius, the archer. Many people think it looks like a teapot, see if you can make out its shape!
Enjoy August skies!