Upstate New York Stargazing – November, 2016

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

November Stargazing in Upstate NY: Catch the sometimes roaring Leonids

A 30 second exposure of the International Space Station above Lake Ontario and just past the Big Dipper (left). Photo by Don Chamberlin, member of ASRAS-Rochester Astronomy Club.

Updated: Mar. 22, 2019, 12:53 a.m. | Published: Oct. 31, 2016, 3:13 p.m.

(Special to Syracuse.com)

By Damian Allis, Contributing writer

There are some at observing sessions who, upon seeing a satellite for the first time, marvel at just how bright something so small and far away can be. There are several individual high-fliers and families of orbiting objects, and you can use such websites as heavens-above.com, n2yo.com, and spaceweather.com/flybys/ to predict their paths with great accuracy. You need not do your homework, however. Anyone with decent night vision will see satellites jump out against the backdrop of stationary stars all night long, moving swiftly until they set below the horizon, enter Earth's shadow, or reorient their solar panels.

With a sturdy tripod and a camera that can do long exposures – and we're only talking 15 seconds or more – you can catch the trails of bright satellites from urban locations. If your timing is right, you might even try for a combination satellite/airplane flyover. With a long exposure, the satellite will produce a long, continuous light trail, while the flashing lights of the airplane will produce a bright dotted line.

The image above is one such example of a well-placed International Space Station (ISS) flyover, complete with the bright stars of the most famous asterism in the Northern Hemisphere – The Big Dipper. Thanks to the long exposure, it is even possible to see that some of the stars are slightly red-orange and not just pure white pinpoints of light. Thanks to some straightforward physics, we know that our photographer opened his shutter at 7:49:57 p.m. and closed it at 7:50:27 p.m., and we could have figured out the exact day and time from the recent orbits of the ISS even if we didn't know that the picture was taken on Oct. 12.

Your First Steps Outside:

The view looking south at 9:00 p.m. on November 15th (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of November).

NOTE: Daylight Saving Time ends at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 6th. Because of this, reported times for some month-long events listed below will be one hour earlier starting on the Nov. 6. To account for this difference, certain reported times below are in a [before the 6th]/[after the 6th] format, while other times correctly account for the time change.

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing between 8 p.m. and midnight throughout November anywhere in New York state. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

Mars and Terebellum help mark globular cluster M75.

Mars: Mars will follow the horizon close to [10]/[9] p.m. all month long before setting, sliding from the southwest to the west in the process. It remains the most accessible, although not the most prominent, planet in the skies this month. Starting October 30th, Mars and the faint globular cluster M75 will be in the same field of view of a pair of 10×50 binoculars. Closest approach will occur on the night of November 7th, although the Moon that night will not make your observation of M75 easy. You can use Mars and the four stars of the tiny, ancient asterism Terebellum to help orient yourself. For a refresher on globular clusters, check out the October article.

Saturn, Venus, and the Moon on November 2nd just after sunset.

Venus: Observers unimpressed with the recent temperature change can still get some early planetary viewing in. Venus remain unmistakable to the southwest soon after sunset, making an early exit from the night sky at the beginning of the month around [7:45]/[6:45] p.m. Thanks to our relative positions in our respective orbits, we'll even be gaining about one minute of additional Venus viewing each night. By month's end, Venus will set below the SW horizon just before 7:30 p.m.

Saturn: What we gain in Venus viewing we lose in Saturn viewing. Saturn has been setting just after Venus recently, but will hit the horizon at the same time on Nov. 2, when Venus, Saturn, and the very young waxing crescent moon make for a pleasant grouping. Catch this soon after sunset, as we lose the whole group to the horizon before 7:30 p.m. Chances to catch Saturn all but end by Nov. 15, when it sets just before 6 p.m.

The last good month for seeing the Summer Triangle.

The Summer Triangle: If it was not already apparent that we're not in Summer anymore, the Summer Triangle becomes the Summer Line in pre-midnight skies this month. Our summertime southern-pointing star Altair in the constellation Aquila now sets just north of due-West earlier and earlier this month, leaving Deneb in Cygnus and the brilliant Vega in Lyra. Vega itself will drop below the horizon before midnight by mid-month, marking the transition of Cygnus the Swan into what some refer to as the Northern Cross, with Cygnus now diving head-first into the horizon to leave its wings and back-end standing upright to the west/northwest. For a refresher on the Summer Triangle, see the August and September articles in this series.

The unmistakable Orion, rising before 11:00 p.m. this month, and neighboring constellations.

Orion, Taurus, And The Pleiades: Winter's best now make grand appearances before midnight, featuring the two closest open clusters to our Solar System. Unlike the dense globular clusters described in last month's article, open clusters contain only 10's to 100's of stars that are all gravitationally bound to one another. You can think of "open" here as referring to all of the open, dark space you can see between member stars. The Pleiades, the second-closest open star cluster to Earth, rises above the Eastern horizon after 7/6 p.m. in early November and comfortably before sunset by month's end. Following about an hour behind the Pleiades is the head of Taurus the Bull. The distinctive V-shaped head is composed of the bright red-orange star Aldebaran and "all the other" stars – this final collection of remaining notable-but-not-as-prominent stars are themselves called the Hyades and are the closest open star cluster to Earth. Contrary to some representations you might see, Aldebaran is not, in fact, a gravitationally-bound member of this cluster – it is much closer to Earth than the Hyades cluster and just happens to be placed in just the right spot to turn an otherwise less-impressive "checkmark" shape into a more distinctive "V" shape. Orion rises soon after Taurus and looks like a massive bowtie as it comes over the horizon. Only after it has fully cleared the horizon does it begin to take on the image of a human figure instead of human formal wear.

Early Riser Alert:

Jupiter: Jupiter rises above the Eastern horizon near 5:30 a.m. on Nov 1st and by 4:00 a.m. at month's end. Its four Galilean Moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – are all visible in low-power binoculars when Jupiter rises, but are washed out early by sunlight even before sunrise approaches. Jupiter and the very waning crescent moon will make a very nice pairing after 4:00 a.m. on November 25th. The next prominent change to the early morning sky will not occur until mid-February, when Saturn makes its reappearance in the sky after its November departure at sunset.

November Observing Opportunities In Upstate/Central New York:

New York has a number of evenly-spaced astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host sessions throughout the year. Many of these sessions are free and open to the public, often close to the New Moon when skies are darkest and the chance for seeing deep, distant objects is greatest. These observers and facilities are the very best places to see the month's best objects using some of the best equipment, all while having very knowledgeable observers at your side to answer questions and guide discussion. Many of these organizations also hold monthly meetings, where seasoned amateurs can learn about recent news and discoveries from guest lecturers, and brand new observers are encouraged to join and begin the path towards seasoned amateur status.

Announced public sessions from several respondent NY astronomy organizations are provided below for November. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the website links or email the groups for directions, to find out about any fees, and to double-check about an event the day of the announced session. Also note that some groups will include weather-alternate dates for scheduled sessions.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingNov. 46:30 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingNov. 185:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyOctagon Barn Star Party & LectureNov. 47:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyStar Party at Grafton LakesNov. 47:30 – 11:30 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyStar Party at Landis ArboretumNov. 25, 268:00 – 10:00 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusPublic Viewing With Bob PiekielNov. 4/57:00 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"What is inside Jupiter?" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 47:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 56:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"High Performance Computing" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 117:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 126:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Water from Rain" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 187:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 196:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestal"Black Holes on Black Friday" Lecture And Public ViewingNov. 257:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalObserving @ Barnes & NobleNov. 256:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 57:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 127:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 197:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervillePublic Star GazingNov. 267:30 PM – 12:00 AMemail, website

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers:

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes per hour, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

The ISS this month is going to be an excellent morning target, but will not make any appearance in the evening sky until month's end. On the bright side, December will see several bright evening passes early in the month. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

ISS fly-bys

DateBrightnessApprox. StartStart DirectionApprox. EndEnd Direction
11/1very7:08 AMSW7:14 AME/NE
11/2moderately6:16 AMSSW6:21 AME
11/3extremely6:59 AMW/SW7:06 AMNE
11/4very6:08 AMS/SW6:13 AME/NE
11/5very6:51 AMW6:57 AMNE
11/6extremely5:01 AMN5:04 AMNE
11/7very5:44 AMW/NW5:48 AMNE
11/8moderately4:53 AMN/NE4:55 AMNE
11/9moderately5:36 AMN/NW5:39 AMNE
11/10moderately4:45 AMN/NE4:46 AMNE
11/10moderately6:18 AMNW6:23 AMNE
11/11moderately5:27 AMN/NW5:30 AMNE
11/12moderately6:10 AMNW6:15 AME/NE
11/13moderately5:19 AMN5:22 AMNE
11/14moderately6:01 AMNW6:06 AME
11/15moderately5:10 AMN5:13 AME/NE
11/16very5:52 AMNW5:58 AME/SE
11/17very5:02 AMNNE5:05 AME
11/18extremely5:44 AMW/NW5:49 AMSE
11/19very4:54 AME4:56 AME/SE
11/19moderately6:27 AMW6:31 AMS
11/20very5:36 AMW/SW5:39 AMS/SE
11/21moderately4:46 AMSE4:47 AMSE
11/28somewhat6:24 PMS6:25 PMS
11/29somewhat7:06 PMSW7:07 PMSW
11/30very6:14 PMS/SW6:16 PMS/SE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.

Moon:

Lunar Phases

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:New:
Oct. 30, 1:30 PMNov. 7, 2:51 PMNov. 14, 8:52 AMNov. 21, 3:33 AMNov. 29, 7:18 AM

The moon's increasing brightness as full moon approaches washes out fainter stars, random meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the moon is a wonderful binocular object.

Meteor Showers: Leonids, Peaking Nov. 16-18

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identity and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. In the case of the Leonids, the meteor shower radiant appears to be just within Leo the Lion's mane, which rises from the east after midnight this month. The meteor shower itself is provided to us by Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, whose 33-year orbit will return it to the inner solar system in 2031.

Leo rises in the very early morning this month. To fully orient yourself, look for a backward question mark (in green) that marks Leo's mane.

How to observe: The Leonids can be impressive and impressively bright, with up-to 15 meteors per hour expected. Sadly, the Moon will be prominent in the late-night/early-morning sky during the days around the Leonid peak, making for a far less impressive display.

Leo marks the position of the meteor shower radiant, meaning the meteors themselves will seem to shoot roughly from the east to the west. To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed east and your head elevated – meteors will then appear to fly right over and around you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. The swarm of tiny particles is distributed broadly in orbit, meaning some people may see shooting stars associated with the Leonids during the middle and end of the month.

Learn A Constellation: Cygnus

The constellation Cygnus the Swan has reared its beak in the August and September articles, as its tail star Deneb is one of the corners of the Summer Triangle. If we imagine its wings fully expanded, the body of Cygnus happens to line up very well with the plane of the galaxy. When we look at the body and long neck, we're taking a look into the thicket of the spiral arm that is our nesting place in the Milky Way.

Cygnus and surroundings.

Cygnus is a prominent constellation in a busy part of the nighttime sky – but its placement right above us during prime summer observing hours makes binocular viewing a literal pain in the neck. As mid-autumn gives way to late autumn, Cygnus reaches the western sky during more reasonable observing hours, giving us a far more comfortable opportunity to explore this part of the galaxy.

The easiest way to find Cygnus is to search for the Summer Triangle itself – which for many eyes will mean finding the bright star Vega in Lyra the Harp first. For this, simply orient your head to the west/northwest, keeping in mind that the brilliantly bright Venus to the southwest will *not* be the star you're looking for in the early evening. With Vega and Lyra found, the distinctive cross shape should jump out at you to Vega's upper left. Deneb will be the bright east-pointing tip, followed by Sadr at the crossroads. Glenah and Rukh make up the joint in the wings, while Albireo marks the swan's head. Albireo is itself a pleasant big bino/telescope object, as it splits into two stars upon sufficient magnification, with one a pronounced red/orange and the other giving off a slight blue twinge to most eyes.

A distant view of tiny M29 (slooh.com) and a high-resolution view of M39.

For significant deep sky objects, we continue with the open cluster theme begun with the Hyades and Pleiades in Taurus the Bull. M29 is a small open cluster just to the left of Sadr – a dim object requiring magnification and eagle eyes to really take in. The open cluster M39 lies above Deneb. With Deneb in your sights, identify a bright triangle taking up much of the field of view of your binoculars. Use the star farthest from Deneb as an anchor to slide the binos up to search for a small grouping of dim stars.

Those with a keen imagination are welcome to take a gander just to the south of the star half-way between Sadr and Albireo. You won't be able to see it, but marked in the image above is the location of the first X-ray source ever classified as a black hole – the existence of which made for a long-running game of gravitational chicken between famed physicists Stephen Hawking and Kip Thorne. These two and other astrophysicists, as well as most progressive rock fans, know this object as Cygnus X-1.

Beyond M29, M39, a black hole, and its prime position along the Milky Way, you can add one more feather to the cap of Cygnus. The green squares in the image above mark the location where the NASA Kepler Mission undertook a multi-year survey for extrasolar planets, finding (so far) over 2,300 of the 3,200 confirmed extrasolar planets in our Milky Way – a search for which astronomers are just getting started. When you look to the northern wing of Cygnus, consider how many exoplanets this telescopic fox captured in only nearby stars, then consider how small a patch of the night sky this galactic hen house represents.

Damian G. Allis, Ph.D. is the director of CNY Observers (www.cnyo.org) and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

Original Posts:

Tags:

Upstate New York Stargazing – August, 2016

Author's Note: The "Upstate New York Stargazing" series ran on the newyorkupstate.com and syracuse.com websites (and limited use in-print) from 2016 to 2018. For the full list of articles, see the Upstate New York Stargazing page.

Stargazing in Upstate NY in August: See the Milky Way, Perseid meteor shower

The Milky Way center is visible this month in Upstate New York. Photo by Patrick Manley of Kopernik Astronomical Society in Vestal.

Updated: Mar. 21, 2019, 5:26 p.m. | Published: Aug. 01, 2016, 10:00 a.m.

(Special to Syracuse.com)

By Damian Allis | Contributing writer

Syracuse, N.Y. — In August, the core of our Milky Way galaxy rises soon after sunset and is visible in the south-southwest sky for pre-midnight observers. At first sight, you might mistake our fair galaxy as a cloud band moving slowly to the west. This cloud band is not made of tiny water droplets, but instead the light from the estimated 300 billion stars that are too far away for us to resolve as pinpoints of light.

Unlike Upstate New York cloud cover, which occasionally goes away, this Milky Way cloud band has been a constant in our nighttime sky since the Solar System's formation nearly 5 billion years ago, and will remain the most constant feature in our sky well beyond the time when the Sun exhausts it fuel 5 billion years from now.

The sky may still be a little too bright before 10 p.m. to see the cloudiness, or nebulosity, if you're near city lights or if you have a bright city to your south. Depending on your lighting, you may more easily see our local galactic arm extending above you and to the northeast, which is also mistakable for a cloud band at first viewing. If you have the chance, find a dark location with a clear view to the south, then stare and wonder at the tens of billions of stars directly between us and the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's center.

August also marks the return of the Perseids, one of the most consistent – and consistently impressive – meteor showers of the year. The quality of this show will be diminished for some of us, as the moon is between first-quarter and full during peak Perseid nights. If you're interested in the best predicted sights of shooting stars, you should shoot for a nap on the early evening of Aug. 11. If you don't mind the lost productivity on the 12th, the moon will drop below the western horizon soon after midnight, after which the darker sky will make even the dim streaks stand out to dark-adapted eyes. If you're a weekend astro-warrior, the nights of the 12th and 13th should still yield some great sights.

Your First Steps Outside:

The crescent Moon, Jupiter, Mercury, and Venus on Aug. 6.

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing between 9 p.m. and midnight throughout August anywhere in New York state. The longer you're outside and away from indoor or bright lights, the better your dark adaption will be. If you have to use your smartphone, find a red light app or piece of red acetate, else set your brightness as low as possible.

This is the view through binoculars on Aug. 27 of the Venus-Jupiter conjunction through binoculars.

Jupiter, which has been brilliant in our pre-midnight sky since January, finally sets to the west in the late-evening. You'll need a low, clear horizon to catch it at all by the end of August, but its grouping with Venus and Mercury at this time will be worth it. The loss of Jupiter at night makes Mars all the more pronounced. Mars continues to slowly glide between the red-orange star Antares and Saturn, crossing the imaginary line between them on Aug. 23/24.

Prominent in the nighttime sky right now is the aptly-named Summer Triangle. The three stars of this asterism are among the brightest in the nighttime sky, making it one of the very first objects you'll be able to see after sunset. Vertices are pointed roughly north, west, and south right now and are each the most prominent stars in their similarly prominent constellations – once you find this triangle, try star-hopping your way through each mythological character.

* The brightest of these corners is the star Vega in the constellation Lyra the Harp. At 25 light years away, it rounds out the top-five closest stars to us (sixth if you count the sun). Those who read the book or saw the movie "Contact" will know Vega as the "actual" star in the story.

* The southern vertex is the star Altair in the constellation Aquila the Eagle. Altair is not as visibly bright as Vega despite being eight light years closer to us, ranking in as the 12th brightest star in our sky overall. As it happens, we also know that Altair and Jupiter share a similar shape – both are being squeezed at the poles, bulging at their equators like slightly compressed water balloons.

* The north-pointing vertex is an absolute scorcher. Deneb marks the tail of the constellation Cygnus the Swan, known by some as the "Northern Cross" both for its shape and because, in December skies, it stands prominent on the northwest horizon. We don't know the distance to Deneb with great accuracy, but we estimate it as being (very) roughly 2,500 light years away. To be that far away yet still as bright as it is, you know it is literally burning the midnight oil – estimates place it between 50,000 and 250,000 times that of our own sun. It's not only blindingly bright, it's also wondrously wide. If we replaced the sun with Deneb, we'd be observing Deneb from the inside.

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers:

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes per hour, yet a thrill to new observers of all ages. Few flyovers compare in brightness or interest to the International Space Station. The flyovers of the football-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete. The first two weeks of August are full of flyovers, with all 26 bright, pre-midnight flyovers for Upstate NY listed below. In many cases, there are two flyovers each night before midnight, each separated by about 90 minutes – the amount of time it takes for the ISS to go once around the Earth. Simply go out a few minutes before the start time, orient yourself, and look for what will at first seem like a distant plane.

DayBrightnessApproximate Start TimeDirectionApproximate End TimeDirection
8/1very9:01 PMW9:07 PMNE
8/1medium10:39 PMNW10:43 PMNE
8/2bright11:22 PMNW11:25 PMN/NE
8/2bright9:45 PMW/NW9:50 PMNE
8/3bright8:52 PMW/NW8:57 PMNE
8/3bright10:29 PMNW10:34 PMNE
8/4very11:13 PMNW11:15 PMN
8/4bright9:36 PMNW9:41 PMNE
8/5very10:19 PMNW10:23 PMNE
8/5medium11:55 PMNW11:56 PMNW
8/6very11:02 PMNW11:04 PMN/NW
8/6bright9:26 PMNW9:31 PMNE
8/7very10:09 PMNW10:13 PMNE
8/7medium11:45 PMW/NW11:46 PMW/NW
8/8very10:52 PMW/NW10:54 PMNW
8/8very9:16 PMNW9:21 PME/NE
8/9extremely9:59 PMNW10:03 PME/NE
8/10very9:06 PMNW9:12 PME
8/10very10:42 PMW/NW10:44 PMW
8/11extremely9:49 PMW/NW9:53 PMSE
8/12extremely8:56 PMNW9:02 PME/SE
8/12bright10:33 PMW10:34 PMW/SW
8/13extremely9:39 PMW/NW9:43 PMS
8/14extremely8:46 PMW/NW8:52 PMSE
8/15bright9:30 PMW9:34 PMS
8/16very8:36 PMW/NW8:42 PMS.SE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com.

Moon:

New:First-Quarter:Full:Third-Quarter
August 2ndAugust 10thAugust 18thAugust 25th

The moon's increasing brightness as full moon approaches washes out fainter stars, meteors, and other celestial objects – this is bad for most observing, but excellent for new observers, as only the brightest stars (those that mark the major constellations) and planets remain visible for your easy identification. If you've never tried it, the moon is a wonderful binocular object.

Planets:

Provided you know where to look and how to find them, you can catch glimpses of all eight planets this month before midnight. Those with exceptional telescopes and observing skills might even be able to take a peak at distant Pluto to fill out their punch card for the original nine. We'll highlight the brightest five below.

The view looking south at 10 p.m. Aug. 15. Except for the changing moon position, this view is accurate for all of August.

Mars: Mars is the unmissable planet this month, glowing bright red-orange in the south-southwest sky. It'll even be directly underneath the Moon on August 11th if you need another observing marker. Mars has just left the constellation Libra the Scales and will move from the claws to the jaws of Scorpius this month. August 23rd/24th will make for the very pleasant bright-orange pairing of Mars (above) and the star Antares (below) under the watchful gaze of Saturn (above both).

Saturn: Saturn remains at the western border of the constellation Ophiuchus and will slowly make its way east until settling into Sagittarius in 2018. If you can see Mars, Saturn is the bright star just above and to the left of it. In good binoculars, Saturn and its rings appear as a small oval. With big binoculars or a small telescope, you should be able to distinguish between the planet and its rings, and maybe even see the dark Cassini Division within the rings.

Jupiter: Jupiter sets early this month to the west, gone completely by 10 p.m. early on and soon after sunset by month's end. Those with a high elevation and low tree line are in for a real treat on Aug. 27 when Venus, Jupiter, and all four of Jupiters largest moons put on a very close approach. Aug. 27 also marks the next pass of the NASA probe Juno around Jupiter. If all goes well, expect another remarkable image to make its way around social media on Aug. 28.

Venus: Venus is exceptionally bright and low on the western horizon this month, but sets before 9 p.m. each night. Jupiter and Venus are going to make a remarkably close pairing in the sky on Aug. 27 – well worth a look just after sunset. Those with low-power binoculars should be able to fit Jupiter and Venus into the same field of view, catching sights of all four Galilean moons as well. Astronomers refer to this close passing of one planet by another as a conjunction. While this bright conjunction on the 27th will be impressive, you may appreciate it even more by going outside on the 26th and 28th as well to see just how far Venus appears to move with respect to the Jovian reference point.

Mercury: Mercury glows dimmer than Jupiter and Venus, but is still bright enough to stand out after sunset. Your best chance to find it easily might be soon after sunset on Aug. 5 and 6, when a double-double pairing of the moon with Jupiter and Mercury with Venus occurs close to the western horizon.

Perseid Meteor Shower (Peak nights are Aug. 11 and 12, with up to 150 meteors per hour)

Meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. As these objects approach the warming sun in their long orbits, they leave tiny bits behind – imagine pebbles popping out the back of a large gravel truck on an increasingly bumpy road. In the case of meteor showers, the brilliant streaks you see are due to particles no larger than grains of sand. The Earth plows through the swarm of these tiny particles at up-to 12 miles-per-second. High in the upper atmosphere, these particles burn up due to friction and ionize the air around them, producing the long light trails we see. We can predict the peak observing nights for a meteor shower because we know when and where in Earth's orbit we'll pass through the same part of the Solar System – this yearly periodicity in meteor activity is what let us identity and name meteor showers well before we ever had evidence of what caused them.

The name of each meteor shower is based on the constellation from which the shooting stars appear to radiate – a position in the sky we call the radiant. In the case of the Perseids, the meteor shower radiant appears to be just off the head of Perseus, which rises from the northeast just after 9 p.m. this month. The meteor shower itself is provided to us by Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle, which last made its dramatic pass in 1992 and which will return again to replenish the debris field in 2126.

How to observe: Perseus marks the position of the meteor shower radiant, meaning the meteors themselves will seem to shoot roughly from the northeast to the southwest. To optimize your experience, lie flat on the ground with your feet pointed northeast – meteors will then appear to fly right over you. Counts and brightness tend to increase the later you stay out, with peak observing times usually between midnight and 4 a.m. The swarm of tiny particles is distributed broadly in orbit, meaning some people may see Perseid meteors a week before and after the Aug. 11/12 peak.

Learn A Constellation: Sagittarius

The constellation Sagittarius marks the center of the Milky Way.

As long as you're staring south to see the Milky Way center, your eyes are already in the right direction for Scorpius' neighbor to the east. Not all of the stars in the constellation Sagittarius are prominent without decently dark skies, but one feature will jump right out at you that will make finding the rest much easier.

Find Mars and use that as your marker for Scorpius, sliding down the tail from Antares and looping up to end on the bright tail star Shaula. Looking to the east, the first prominent star you'll see is Kaus Australis. From that star, make a triangle out of the two slightly dimmer stars above it ("1"). To the east of this triangle, you'll run into a prominent sideways trapezoid ("2"). Now, imagine a line connecting Kaus Australis with the bottom-most star of the trapezoid ("3"). Go half-way along that line and look up to a final bright star ("4"). That whole structure will, hopefully, jump out to you as a tea pot. With that structure firmly in place in your mind, you can look just to the west of the spout of the tea pot to see the galactic center.

From the tea pot, the less prominent features of Sagittarius make their presence known in a star chart. We lose a bit of the bottom of this constellation because we're too far north, but most of us should be able to see all but the bottom-most two stars.

Damian G. Allis, Ph.D. is the director of CNY Observers (www.cnyo.org) and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

Original Posts:

Tags: