August Skies

Hi everyone. This is the first in what I hope will be a monthly posting on the night sky for residents and friends of Balsam Mountain Preserve. Each month I will provide general guidance on things you can see with your naked eyes or binoculars. We are blessed with fairly dark skies in our mountain community so you will be able to see things that you can’t see when the light pollution of a big city washes out most of what is interesting in the night sky.

The planets – Other than the moon, the easiest things to spot in the night sky are the brighter planets including Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. In early August, Venus, Mars and Saturn are all cozy together in the early evening. Look for them just after sunset in the West. When the planets appear close together in the sky we call it a ‘conjunction’. Venus and Mars are within 3 degrees from August 12th through the 25th. The other bright object nearby is the star Spica which pulls very close to Mars and Venus later in the month. After the planetary trio sets in the West, look for Jupiter rising in the East. It’s the 2nd brightest planet after Venus and as the month progresses will be higher in the West after dark. Through binoculars or a small telescope you will be able to see Saturn’s rings and some of its brighter moons.

Speaking of the moon, it starts the month at last quarter followed by the new moon (when its not visible at night) on the 10th and full again on the 24th. A new moon at mid month is great news for meteor watchers for the great Perseid meteor shower peaks on the 12th. You can see Perseid meteors on any night from the 10th trough the 14th but the best time to see them will be after midnight. Although they will appear to originate from near the constellation Peresus you will see them no matter where you look. From a dark location you should see up to 60 meteors per hour as the dust grains from the comet Swift-Tuttle burn up in the upper atmosphere.

August is a great time to observe the Milky Way. Look for the broad band of stars that make up the spiral arms of our galaxy stretching from the north-east to the south-west. It will be almost overhead after 10PM.

Thats all for this month – Go out at night, turn out the lights and enjoy the dark skies.

Jim Stratigos
Resident Astronomer

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