It’s August now and a few weeks since the Summer Solstice, so you should be noticing it getting dark earlier at night with the constellations appearing from about 10pm. Find out how to navigate the night sky using the Summer Triangle, how to see the cloudy core of the Milky Way and the best time of the month to watch the shooting stars from the Perseid Meteor shower.
With sunset now at around 9:00 pm, the stars and the constellations will become visible from about 10:00 pm onwards. As with July, the best way to navigate your way around the night sky is to still use the Summer Triangle. The Triangle is made up of the three bright stars of Vega, Altair and Deneb. Start off by finding Vega, a bright white star which will be directly overhead. Next is Altair, which you will find halfway between Vega and the southern horizon. Finally, there is Deneb, which will be almost directly above Altair and across from Vega.
Sagittarius makes a teapot shape low down on the southern horizon. It is rich in star clusters and nebulae, some of which you can see with binoculars on a night when the southern horizon is really clear. Above the spout is the Lagoon Nebula, a giant interstellar cloud that’s visible to the naked eye. Near to it and visible with a telescope is the three-lobed Trifid Nebula, while above Sagittarius and in the Milky Way, you will find a bright patch of stars called the Sagittarius Star Cloud (M24). Above this, is the Omega Nebula, which is one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions of our galaxy.
Off to the right of Vega, you can still see the spring constellations of Hercules, Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown) and Boötes (the Herdsman) and you can also pick out the constellation of Lyra (the Lyre), of which Vega is its brightest star. Below Vega, you will see Lyra’s 4 other main stars, which all form a small parallelogram.
Although most of what to see is in the southern night sky, there are a few notable things to see if you look north. In the north-west, you will find the familiar shape of The Plough and you can use its two right hand stars to point towards Polaris (the Pole Star or North Star), which is always in the same position in the sky.
To the right of Polaris, you’ll see the W-shape of Cassiopeia, the constellation that represents the fabled vain queen of the same name. At this time of year her husband, king Cepheus, is high in the sky, though his stars are nothing like as bright as those of his beautiful wife. Below Cassiopeia are the stars of Perseus, after which the Perseid meteors are named. These meteors will peak on the night of 12-13 August, and you can find out more about them below. Finally, low down and below Perseus is Capella, the brightest star in the constellation of Auriga (the Charioteer) and the sixth-brightest star in the night sky.
We start the month with little or no Moon as the new Moon was on 28 July. On 1 August and 2 August, looking through binoculars towards the west at nightfall will reveal a narrow crescent moon sitting close to the horizon.
This month’s full Moon is on 12 August, becoming 100% full at 2:36 am. This means that it will appear full on the nights of 10-11 August, 11-12 August, and 12-13 August. It will rise in the south-east at about 9:30 pm on 10 August, just before 10:00 pm on 11 August and just after 10:00 pm on 12 August. The Moon will be close to Saturn on these evenings and a couple of days later, on the nights of 14 August and 15 August, you will find it close to Jupiter, over in the east.
August’s full moon was called the Sturgeon Moon by North American fishing tribes because this species of fish appeared in large numbers during this month. It has also been called the green corn moon, the grain moon, and the red moon for the reddish hue it often takes on in the summer haze. It will pass Earth at a distance of 224,569 miles, making it a supermoon, or a Sturgeon Supermoon. This is the third closest approach of the year and it is the last of the four supermoons we have had this year.
The last quarter Moon is on 19 August, when you will see it traversing the night sky just to the left of Mars, rising in the northeast just after 11:30 pm.
There is a new Moon (no moon) on 27 August and in the early hours of 25 and 26 August, you may be able to pick out the thinnest of crescent moons sitting close to Venus when they both rise in the northeast in twilight hours before sunrise.
This month, the first planet you will see is Saturn, which will be sitting just above the south-eastern horizon as darkness falls. It reaches its brightest this year when it is opposite the Sun and nearest to Earth on 14 August and, if you look at it through a small telescope or binoculars, you should be able to make out its rings.
Neptune will rise in the east at around 9:30 pm, sitting between the constellations of Aquarius and Pisces. However, it will be very faint and difficult to see, even with a telescope. Next up is Jupiter, rising at around 10:00 pm. It will be easier to see as it will be shining very brightly. Look out for it pairing up with the moon on the nights of 14 August and 15 August.
Mars follows an hour and a half later, at about 11:30 pm. It will start the month rising over in the east-north-east directly below Uranus which itself, will have risen at about 11:00 pm. Mars will gradually move left, towards the north-east as the days progress, passing below the Pleiades star cluster on 20 and 21 August, before ending the month just above the star, Aldebaran, over in the constellation of Taurus.
Finally, rising in the north-east at around 4:00 am, Venus continues to spend this time of the year as the glorious “Morning Star”, shining much brighter than anything else in the sky. However, it is gradually dropping down towards the horizon and into the morning twilight glow as the days pass.
Mercury is too close to the Sun the be visible this month.
After a few months’ absence, you’ll be able to see some shooting stars because the number of meteor showers is now on the increase. In fact, August can be a great month for spotting shooting stars because the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower is on the 12-13 August. It is called the Perseid Meteor Shower because the radiant (the area of the sky where the meteors seem to originate) is located near the constellation of Perseus and although you can see them throughout the night, you will see more if you wait until this radiant is high in the night sky. This is usually about midnight until dawn, so watch for them then to maximise your chances of spotting some.
Unfortunately, the Perseids peak coincides with a full Moon this year, meaning that all but a few of the brightest shooting stars will be washed out by moonlight. However, because this meteor shower will rise to a peak gradually from the start of the month and then fall off rapidly at the peak, you can watch for some between the start and the middle of the month, up until the waxing moon (brighter each night, and up for more hours) begins to drown out the show.
Finally, when watching for shooting stars, give yourself at least an hour of observing time, because they will come in spurts, interspersed with lulls. Also remember that your eyes can take as long as 20 minutes to adapt to the darkness of night, so don’t rush the process. If you are patient, you may see up to 60 meteors per hour as the shower’s peak approaches.