Upstate New York Stargazing – March, 2017

Upstate NY Stargazing In March: Messier Marathon and the Lunar Occultation of Aldebaran

M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, and its satellite galaxies M32 (a hazy star just above-left of M31's center) and M110 (the oval structure below-left of M31's center). Photograph taken at Kopernik Observatory & Science Center by Kopernik Astronomical Society member George Normandin. Click for a larger view.

Updated: Feb. 28, 2017, 5:12 p.m. Published: Feb. 28, 2017, 4:12 p.m.

Special to nyup.com

By Damian Allis, Contributing Writer

When someone refers to an astronomical object as "M" and a number, just what do they mean?

Once upon a time in astronomy, we didn't much know anything. Our classification throughout most of human history divided the nighttime sky into (1) pinpoints of light that didn't move with respect to each other (stars), (2) points of light that did move (planets), (3) random streaks of light that moved very quickly and disappeared (meteors), (4) the very rare pinpoints of light that grew bright and then disappeared completely (nova, supernova) and (5) the Moon.

There was also a rare sixth kind of object – comets. Comets grew bright over time before disappearing again, moved with respect to the backdrop of stars, looked like a hazy ball of light instead of a sharp pinpoint, and some were even known to come back around our way every certain number of years – a true hybrid of properties. Perhaps the most famous comet is the 75-ish year period Halley's Comet. Literary buffs will know that Mark Twain was born in 1835, the year of a Halley fly-by, and died in 1909, the year of the next Halley pass. He was even quoted as saying "It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet."

European history buffs may know that the 1066 fly-by of Halley's Comet was seen as an omen – albeit an eventually poor one for Harold II of England, who suffered death and defeat at the swords and stirrups of William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. The Bayeux Tapestry, which records the events leading up to this famed battle, even includes the sighting of the at-that-time-unnamed Halley's Comet.

Now we zoom in on the "M" – as it happens, many deep sky objects, including globular star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae, can look a bit comet-ish when magnified. This is especially true in poor quality equipment, where bad optics make everything unresolvable, adding a hazy glow to further confuse the issue. The "street cred" that came with the discovery of and naming rights for comets instigated many to push the limits of scope building and observing after Galileo's first foray into telescope observing, as better optics and higher magnification meant catching sight sooner than anyone else. Fortunately for methodical comet hunters, many of the hazy deep sky objects in their sights did not move in the sky with respect to the stars around them – meaning, to borrow from another space adventure, "these aren't the comets you're looking for."

Enter the "M" – Charles Messier, the famed French comet hunter whose observing prowess gave him a near-monopoly on comet discoveries between 1760 and 1785. In an effort to keep track of stationary stellar fuzz balls, and to pre-empt the erroneous reporting of new comets by others, Messier marked the locations of 17 comet-like objects in the sky that did not move, added 28 other fixed objects discovered previously, and published all 45 in 1774 in what became the first Messier Catalogue. The final catalogue published by Messier and his assistant Pierre Mechain in 1781 included 103 objects. The list was further expanded to 110 by later astronomers who saw evidence for the observations of M104 to M110 in M+M's observing logs, with M110 added just in 1967. The Messier Catalogue accounts for nearly all of the deep sky objects you can see with a decent pair of binoculars in the Northern Hemisphere.

For those keeping track, the irony of the whole situation is that Messier, famed comet hunter, is remembered for making a catalogue of those things which are, in fact, not comets.

All 110 Messier Objects – and most will not look this good in your binoculars Click for a larger view.

The entire Messier Catalogue, spread throughout the sky as it is, can be observed in its entirety under clear, dark skies very near the New Moon between mid-March and early April. Amateur astronomers the world over engage in what is known as the "Messier Marathon," one of the great yearly tests of an observer's equipment, eyesight, and patience. You have to start *very* soon after sunset to catch the earliest setters, then can enjoy a more leisurely tour of the nighttime sky, sneaking in an occasional nap or big cup of coffee before catching the last few objects *very* soon before sunrise. These marathons are not easy! Observers with several years of experience may have trouble seeing the dimmest members of the list, but even new observers with good binoculars and simple star charts can find the brightest members of the catalogue in what are often called "Messier Sprints." A web search for "Messier Marathon" will provide numerous useful links, including maps to these objects, recording logs for each object, and even the most efficient search order to find and record your observations.

March lectures and observing opportunities

New York has a number of evenly-spaced astronomers, astronomy clubs, and observatories that host public sessions throughout the year. Many of these sessions are close to the New Moon, when skies are darkest and the chances for seeing deep, distant objects are best. 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 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 March. As wind and cloud cover are always factors when observing, please check the provided contact information and/or email the groups a day-or-so before an announced session. Also use the contact info for directions and to check on any applicable event or parking fees, Some groups will schedule weather-alternate dates for some sessions.

Astronomy Events Calendar

OrganizerLocationEventDateTimeContact Info
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingMar. 36:00 PMemail, website
Adirondack Public ObservatoryTupper LakePublic Star GazingMar. 176:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadySenior Science DayMar. 63:00 – 4:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyAAAA MeetingsMar. 167:30 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Albany Area Amateur Astronomers & Dudley ObservatorySchenectadyNight Sky AdventureMar. 217:00 – 8:30 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterASRAS Meeting And LectureMar. 37:30 – 9:30 PMemail, website
Astronomy Section, Rochester Academy of ScienceRochesterTelescope Tune-Up @ StrasenburghMar. 1811:00 AM – 4:00 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusGoodbye To Winter SkiesMar. 37:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Baltimore WoodsMarcellusMercury, Jupiter, Spring SkiesMar. 316:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalMonthly MeetingMar. 17:00 – 9:00 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 37:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 107:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 177:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 247:30 PMemail, website
Kopernik Observatory & Science CenterVestalFriday Night ObservingMar. 317:30 PMemail, website
Mohawk Valley Astronomical SocietyWatervilleLecture: Math And The UniverseMar. 87:30 PMemail, website

For those still smitten with the NASA discovery of seven Earth-sized planets around TRAPPIST-1, attendees in the Cazenovia area are invited to the free lecture "Distant Worlds: What We Know About Extra-Solar Planets And Their Potential For Habitability" on March 1st in Hubbard Hall at Cazenovia College, given by Dr. Leslie Hebb from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and co-sponsored by the Cazenovia College Science Cafe Committee and CNY Observers. For additional information, please send an email to lecture@cnyo.org.

Lunar Phases

New:First Quarter:Full:Third Quarter:New:
Feb. 26, 9:58 AMMar. 5, 6:32 AMMar. 12, 10:53 AMMar. 20, 11:58 AMMar. 27, 10:57 PM

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.

The grazing lunar occultation of Aldebaran. Click for a larger view.

Observers throughout Central and Southern New York are in for an observational treat on the evening of March 4th, when the Moon will occult the bright star Aldebaran, bright eye of the constellation Taurus the Bull. While the Moon occults, or blocks the light from, various stars and occasional planets all the time, the Aldebaran occultation is noteworthy because many observers will see Aldebaran just graze the Moon's edge. The luckiest observers may even see Aldebaran blink several times over the course of the occultation – this is huge! With no atmosphere to speak of, the blinking of Aldebaran you might see is, in fact, the star slipping behind large lunar geological features, such as high hills and the walls of impact craters. With enough observers and enough recorded data, astronomers can even make an elevation map of the grazed region of the Moon.

For those interested in all of the details, including the best ways to observe the event and how you can record data yourself for submission to the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA), check out their official website.

Evening And Nighttime Guide

Items and events listed below assume you're outside and observing most 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.

The view looking southwest at 9 p.m. on March 15 (except for the changing Moon position, this mid-month view is accurate for all of March). Click for a larger view.

Southern Sights: Orion, Taurus, and Canis Major are now primed for nighttime observing. High above them lies the twins Gemini – two very bright stars above Betelgeuse, the bright shoulder of Orion, will help orient you to find the stars that make up their bodies. These real beauties of winter skies will be nearly gone by the end of April, after which observers will have to wake up very early in August to see them again.

The view looking north at 9 p.m. on March 15. The Big Dipper is marked in green, including an arrow guide to finding Polaris, the North Star. Click for a larger view.

Northern Sights: Observers out during the late-evening hours are treated to a prominent Big Dipper standing upright in the northeastern sky and a prominent "E" shape in the northwest – the constellation Cassiopeia. The ancient king Cepheus sits near the horizon before midnight, looking like a dilapidated old barn. Once you've found the Big Dipper, take the two stars at the end of the bowl and guide your way to a moderately bright star surrounded by a mostly empty, dark piece of sky – this is the north star and tip of the Little Dipper handle, Polaris.

Planetary Viewing

Mercury starts the night above Venus on the 20th with Mars and a dim Uranus to the south. Click for a larger view.

Mercury: Mercury will be a bright pinpoint of light that will appear and then set just after sunset on March 11th. For the rest of the month, Mercury rises higher and sets later each night, falling behind Venus on the 20th and rising still higher in the sky through the end of March and early April. The 20th also offers a perfect time to catch four planets – Mars, Uranus, Mercury, and Venus – in the same part of the sky. On March 31, Mercury sets just after 9 p.m. EDT after crossing the Pisces-Aries border.

Venus on March 1st, off to the north of a tight grouping of the Moon, Mars, and Uranus. Click for a larger view.

Venus: Everyone's favorite misidentified UFO is going to zip along rather quickly from our view and through Pisces this month. Venus will set close to 8:30 p.m. on March 1st, a good 40 minutes or more before the crescent Moon and Mars do. On March 19th, Venus will set just after Mercury, newly arrived to the early-evening skies. On March 25th, Venus will set with the Sun and won't return to our evening skies until January of 2018. That said, Venus goes from being a bright evening object to a bright morning object instead! Between the 23rd and 25th, you have a decent chance of seeing Venus at sunset and at sunrise, after which Venus increasingly becomes a pre-dawn observing target until well into December of this year.

Mars: Mars will pair with the Moon this month in Pisces on March 1st and, once again, these two objects can guide you to finding the second-farthest planet in the Solar System. With luck and decent magnification, Uranus will appear as a green/blue point of light below Mars. If the Moon is too bright for easy scanning, simply wait until after the 1st for the Moon to make a little distance from Mars before trying for Uranus again. Mars will set very close to 9:20 p.m. EST / 10:20 EDT the entire month thanks to our mutual motions around the Sun, crossing the border from Pisces to Aries on March 8.

Jupiter and Moon close to Spica in Virgo on March 14. Click for a larger view.

Jupiter: March marks the triumphant return of Jupiter to our late-evening and early nighttime skies. On March 1, Jupiter rises in Virgo just after 9:30 p.m. By March 31, Jupiter will just hit the eastern tree line around 8:30 p.m. EDT.  Low power binoculars are excellent for spying the four bright Galilean moons – Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto – and you are welcome to reproduce Galileo's observations of their motions around Jupiter. In fact, your generic, big-box store binoculars are a significant improvement over the equipment Galileo had at his disposal when he first began observing the heavens, so your task is all the easier. Several online guides will even map their orbits for you so you can identify their motions nightly or, for the patient observer, even hourly. The near-full Moon and Jupiter will make for a bright grouping with the bright Virgo star Spica in 10×50 binoculars after 10 p.m. EDT on March 14.

Saturn and the Moon on March 20th. Click for a larger view.

Saturn: Saturn continues it slow movement through Sagittarius this month, rising over the southeastern horizon just after 2:15 a.m. on March 1 and around 1:15 a.m. on the 31st. Saturn and the waning crescent Moon make for a close pair on March 20. Messier 23 will make for a small triangle in binoculars. The nebulae M21 and M20 can even be placed within the binocular field of view this night, but they will be very difficult to identify due to the brightness of the Moon.

ISS And Other Bright Flyovers

Satellite flyovers are commonplace, with several bright passes easily visible per hour in the nighttime sky, 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 field-sized craft with its massive solar panel arrays can be predicted to within several seconds and take several minutes to complete.

The ISS is going to be an morning object until near the end of March. All of the morning sessions, from the 1st to the 23rd, fall into a window between 4:45 a.m. and 6:45 a.m., including double flyovers on the 18th, 20th, and 22nd. The "extremely" bright flyovers will be just that, with several expected to out-compete our late-evening Venus. At the end of the month, the ISS returns to the early evening, including double flyovers on the 29th and 31st. 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
3/1moderately6:05 AMS/SW6:11 AME/NE
3/3extremely5:56 AMSW6:03 AME/NE
3/4very5:05 AMS/SW5:10 AME/NE
3/5extremely5:48 AMW/SW5:54 AMNE
3/6extremely4:57 AMSW5:01 AME/NE
3/7very5:39 AMW5:45 AMNE
3/8extremely4:49 AMN/NW4:52 AMNE
3/9moderately5:31 AMW/NW5:36 AMNE
3/10moderately4:40 AMN/NW4:43 AMNE
3/11somewhat5:22 AMNW5:27 AMNE
3/12somewhat5:32 AMN5:34 AMNE
3/13somewhat6:13 AMNW6:18 AMNE
3/14somewhat5:23 AMN5:25 AMNE
3/15somewhat6:05 AMNW6:10 AME/NE
3/16somewhat5:14 AMN5:17 AMNE
3/17moderately5:56 AMNW6:01 AME
3/18extremely6:39 AMNW6:45 AME/SE
3/18somewhat5:05 AMN5:08 AME/NE
3/19very5:47 AMNW5:52 AME
3/20extremely6:30 AMW/NW6:36 AMSE
3/20moderately4:56 AMN/NE4:59 AME
3/21extremely5:39 AMNW5:43 AME/SE
3/22moderately6:21 AMW6:26 AMS
3/22moderately4:48 AME4:51 AME/SE
3/23extremely5:31 AMS/SW5:34 AMS/SE
3/26moderately9:05 PMS/SW9:07 PMS/SW
3/27very8:13 PMS8:17 PME
3/28extremely8:56 PMW/SW9:00 PMNE
3/29extremely8:03 PMSW8:09 PME/NE
3/29moderately9:40 PMW9:42 PMN/NW
3/30very8:46 PMW8:52 PMNE
3/31extremely7:53 PMW/SW8:00 PMNE
3/31somewhat9:31 PMW/NW9:34 PMN/NE

Predictions courtesy of heavens-above.com. Times later in the month are subject to change – for the most accurate weekly predictions, check spotthestation.nasa.gov.

Meteor Showers: No Major Showers This Month

As has been discussed in previous articles, meteor showers are the result of the Earth passing through the debris field of a comet or asteroid. While the orbits of scores of these objects bring them close to Earth's orbit, a limited number produce enough debris to produce significant meteor shower activity. February and March mark yearly lulls in major meteor shower activity, with the next prominent shower being the Lryids that occur in April. The astronomy community recognizes many minor showers that are predictable in their timing and are predictably unimpressive. Those interested in seeing a full list should check out the American Meteor Society meteor shower calendar.

Learn A Constellation: Ursa Major

Ursa Major and the Big Dipper, including brightest star labels, the locations of Messier Objects, and an arrow to follow to the north star Polaris. Click for a larger view.

For the first time in this series, we turn our constellation attention to the north. Standing to the northeast and nearly upright on its handle in the late evenings in March is the Big Dipper. In what might be the original instance of "let's take this argument outside," the Big Dipper and Orion have vied for the title of "most famous group of stars" among the amateur astronomy community for as long as people have needed reason to argue. Once pointed out, the Big Dipper is unforgettable, making it an ideal anchor to begin one's hobby as a lifelong star-hopper. As a place to spend the evening observing, the Big Dipper and its surroundings offer a great location to discover a number of interesting astronomical objects.

The Big Dipper, bright and famous as it is, is NOT a constellation. It exists as the torso and tail of the constellation Ursa Major, "The Great Bear." The Big Dipper is one of a handful of widely recognized groups of stars called "asterisms," which one can loosely define as "any group of stars that aren't defined as a constellation." It would be a Herculean task to propose any changes to the 88 modern constellations, but you are welcome to define any group of stars that jump out at you as an asterism – and authors have done so in astronomy books as aids to learning the locations of stars and other objects in the nighttime sky.

The ties that bind Ursa Major to the history of civilizations in the Northern Hemisphere are as much a wonder to behold as the stars themselves. The Romans recognized Ursa Major as a bear, it is one of the few groups of stars with Biblical citation, and tribes and civilizations throughout central and northern Europe up through Scandinavia recognized this star grouping as a bear. Closer to our home, the Iroquois, Algonquian, and Lakota also recognized Ursa Major as a bear early in their star lore. There are compelling arguments that this continental meta-drift is *not* just coincidence, but might be part of a shared oral tradition of nomadic peoples that goes back some 13,000 years to the early population of North America through Beringia, the Bering Strait Land Bridge that existed between Russia and Alaska during the last Ice Age. If true, this would place Ursa Major up there with Orion and Taurus as a *very* old star group.

Like the belt, shoulder, and knee stars of Orion, one can't help but see the trees from the forest by spying the Big Dipper before the dimmer stars of Ursa Major. The three handle stars, Alkaid, Mizar, and Alioth, connect at the dimmer star Megrez to the remaining bowl stars Dubhe, Merak, and Phecda.

Turning our attention to the middle of the handle, a fun game to play at public observing sessions is to ask "How many stars do you see at Mizar?" Those with good vision will see two – Mizar and its dimmer companion Alcor. The history of what follows is not set in stone, but is not really in dispute either – the observation of Mizar and Alcor was used by the Roman Army as an eye test for soldiers. Those who could see both had excellent vision and were candidates for lookouts. Following that logic, those who could only see Mizar were assured never to see a big battle from a safe distance. I suspect that those who couldn't see Mizar either were assured never to see a battle from behind those who could. Alcor and Mizar turn out to be much more complicated than just a simple pair – Mizar is, in fact, a double-double! Magnification reveals Mizar to be a bright pair of stars, while professional equipment reveals each of these stars to themselves be a pair of closely-spaced stars, all bound gravitationally. The dimmer Alcor is itself a binary, making for a combined grouping of six stars.

The seven Messier Objects within Ursa Major, including M40 (from NOAO/AURA/NSF), M82 and M81 (ESA/Hubble), M97 (dam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF), M101 (ESA/NASA), M108 (Hunter Wilson), and M109 (Hunter Wilson). Click for a larger view.

Within the borders of this massive constellation reside seven Messier Objects. M40 is a double star that very clearly doesn't seem to be a fuzzy object. Its identification as a Messier Object has been labeled by some as "Messier's greatest mistake." M81 and M82 are a pair of gravitationally-interacting galaxies beyond the bowl and above the front shoulder of Ursa Major. M97, the Owl Nebula, is well within the field of view of Merak in binoculars – but you will need very dark skies and excellent dark adaptation to ever see this object. The Pinwheel Galaxy, M101, is just at the edge of 10×50 binoculars with Mizar placed at one edge of your field of view, but is bright enough for binoculars. Galaxies M108 and M109 round out the Messier list along the bottom of the bowl. Far from street lights and the Moon, these seven are all possible to see with good dark adaption, but patience and a reduced expectation of their visual quality is key. In all seven cases, you may find that your hands are not steady enough to easily see these wispy objects under magnification. Even for binocular viewing, I recommend a decent tripod and binocular tripod mount to improve your views.

Dr. Damian Allis is the director of CNY Observers and a NASA Solar System Ambassador.

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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.

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