As I write this in mid-July, the big story in the night skies is Comet Neowise. By the time you read this, Neowise will likely be much dimmer than it is now. The brightness of comets can be difficult to estimate though, and it will probably be too dim to see with the naked dye in early August. At its closest (July 23), the comet was about 64 million miles from Earth. On Aug. 1, it will be about 76 million miles away. It was a great view, our first naked-eye comet in many years. Hopefully, most were able to get a view of it, or see some of the many excellent pictures taken.
August is an excellent month for stargazing, with darkness beginning to fall earlier in the evening. Sunset on Aug. 1 will be at about 8:30 p.m., and will drop to about 7:45 p.m. by the end of the month. Jupiter and Saturn still dominate in the southern sky. Even though they made their closest approach to Earth in July, in some respects they are easier to view this month, as they rise high into the night sky earlier in the evening. Both will be at their highest point in the southern sky, and due south, at about 11 p.m. in mid-August.
Our neighbor Mars is working its way back into the evening sky in August. Look for the red planet peeking above the eastern horizon at about 11:30 p.m. at the start of the month, and rising by 9:30 p.m. at the end of August. Mars will be best in October, when it is closest to the Earth.
Venus and Mercury are morning “stars” in August. Venus will shine bright in the east all month in the early morning hours. Look for elusive Mercury low in the northeast at sunrise, on the first few days of the month.
A favorite event to view in August is the Perseid meteor shower, which peaks in the morning hours of Aug. 11-13. If you don’t want to stay up that late (or that early), you may get a good show in the late evening hours as well. Plus, you will avoid a bit of moonlight from the third quarter Moon in the early morning sky.
We begin August with an almost full Moon, low in the south, right between Jupiter and Saturn, making it easy to pick out the two planets. Full Moon follows on Aug. 3. On the 8th, the Moon will lie just below Mars. New Moon comes on the 18th. On the 28th, the once-again nearly full Moon will be again between Jupiter and Saturn.
While you are admiring the Perseids, check out this month’s binocular object, the “Coathanger,” in the constellation Vulpecula. To find it, first locate the bright star Vega, high overhead. Vega is the second brightest star in the night sky right now, just a hair dimmer than Arcturus, which is low in the west. Once you locate Vega, face south and look below and to the left of Vega, and find the bright star Altair. Altair will be about half-way between high overhead and the horizon. Now imagine a straight line between Vega and Altair. Point your binoculars to a spot along this line, about half-way between the stars, but a bit closer to Altair. The Coathanger should be recognizable, although upside-down. See the picture with this article for the location, and let me know if you locate it! And a note about the picture with this article: I decided to try creating it with black stars on a white background, rather than white stars on a black background, as the skies appear. The black stars on a white background might be easier to read in the printed paper. Let me know what you think!