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Astro Mark's Astro Alert: What’s Up Above? August Stargazing

By “Astro” Mark Laurin

The dog days of summer arrive in August. They are hot, sticky, muggy, uncomfortable, and miserable days. A time when summer exerts full force on all creatures, plants, and psyches. They are sultry exhausting days where finding respite from “them barking dogs” drive behavior. The result of this oppressive heat? Drought, lethargy, fever, unexpected thunderstorms, bad luck, and mad dogs. What to make of these August dog days? How did this all begin? Of course, as you know by now, the answers are found in the night sky above. In the stars that shimmer, the planets that wander, and summer’s Grand River of effervescent light flowing overhead.

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Travel with me to the southern hemisphere to the land of Egypt, and the time of pyramids, pharaohs, and prophecies. Then as it is today, the Dog Star, Sirius, reigns as one of the brightest stars in the night. The ancient astronomers were quite aware of Sirius; its prominence and predictable return. They watch it closely. They quickly learned that the rise and disappearance of the star Sirius in the early dawn and in the eastern sky, was a precursor of the annual flooding of the Nile River, and guided farmers when to plant. In the northern hemisphere, the Greeks believed the rise of Sirius ushered in heat and consequently, fever. The Romans continued to blame Sirius for the heat of the season and associated lethargy and diseases. And all of this is due to a bright star.

Is the universe telling us to cool the jets, and relax? Maybe so. What if this dog-gone heat of August is intended to slow life down, relax, and look for relief? If this is so, then here’s a suggestion. Find your respite from the day under the splendid canopy of our night sky. While you breathe in a deep sigh of unwinding, look up, be amazed, and enjoy the special celestial events August has to share.

Our Galactic Center, The entire month of August

The Milky Way Galaxy, our island home in the expanding universe, is a barred spiral galaxy. Imagine an ingot bar of gold, rectangle shape. At each end of the bar is an arm that spirals as the bar turns. In the middle and center of the ingot is the center of our galaxy: The Galactic Center of the Milky Way. The center is visible with your naked eye, which is recommended. That’s because observing it through a telescope or binoculars limits your view of its expansive size. Yes, and you are correct, it is in the galactic center of the Milky Way that our own galaxy’s black hole was discovered in 2022, the star, Sagittarius A*.

To find our galactic center, get to a dark location where light pollution is limited, at best. Wait till our view of the Orion Spur of the Milky Way is high in the sky, any time after 10pm local time. The Orion Spur runs from the northern horizon, diagonally south across the celestial dome, setting in the south southwest horizon – it is a hazy band of light formed from stars that your naked eye cannot resolve or distinguish. The galactic center is located near the border of the constellations, Sagittarius and Scorpius, residing just above the southwestern horizon. It is a large, significantly brighter area in the night sky. See it takes little effort. Once you see it, you’ll understand why astronomers can’t use optical telescopes to penetrate that region. The discovery of our super massive black hole happened by using radio and infrared telescopes, measuring the energy created from the extreme heat of cosmic dust and gas falling into our mysterious black hole.

The Summer Triangle, The entire month of August

The Summer Triangle is what astronomers call an asterism. This means a group of stars of similar magnitude (brightness) form the pattern of its name, as in the Big Dipper, the Coathanger, and the Southern Cross. In our case, it is a scalene triangle pattern formed by the brightest stars in the constellations of Aquila (The Eagle), Cygnus (The Swan), and Lyra (The Lyre). Good news! You don’t need binoculars or a telescope to find summer again.

The brightest of the triangle’s three stars is Vega, in the constellation of Lyra. Mythology tells us that the first lyre (harp) was made by Hermes and given to Apollo. When Orpheus played the lyre, rocks were charmed and it hushed the voices of the dangerous Sirens.

The next brightest star of the triangle is Deneb, in the constellation Cygnus. Our mythological story continues and connects the Swan and the Lyre. The story goes, after Orpheus was murdered, he transformed into a swan and placed in the night sky next to his beloved lyre.

The Summer Triangle’s final star is Altair, in the constellation of Aquila. The Eagle’s mythology is that it carried Zeus’ lightning bolts. For the Polynesian cultures of the Pacific, Aquila is central in their agriculture, and navigation of the seas.

On any clear August night, get outside about an hour after sunset. Orient yourself to face south and look directly towards the southern horizon. Now, from the horizon lift your chin up and tilt your head way back till you are looking straight up above at the highest point in the sky. You will see a very bright star in your right eye (Vega), and a slightly dimmer star in your left (Deneb). Now, draw an imaginary line connecting the two and split it in half. At that midpoint, keep looking up at the sky and slowly bring your chin and head back down towards the southern horizon. At twice the length of your imaginary line (drawn between Vega and Deneb) you’ll see the last star of the Summer Triangle, Altair. Remember, an asterism requires all of the stars to be of similar magnitude. The stars will be the most luminous objects in that slice of the sky at that time of night.

The Granddaddy of Them All: The Perseid Meteor Shower Peak, August 11th – 13th

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Most meteor showers come from comets. A comet is like a dirty dusty compressed snowball of ice. As its orbit brings it nearer to the Sun, it warms up and ice turns it into gas, releasing the dust into space. When the Earth, following its ceaseless orbit, enters the trail of particles left by a passing comet, some of the granular meteoroids burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. This is a meteor shower. Perseid meteoroids results from Comet 109/P Swift-Tuttle, discovered in July, 1862. As for the Perseid meteor shower, while it peaks on August 12th, the grand display is prime for viewing from the 11th – 13th.

To celebrate the Perseid, first reach wide and far to gather your friends and family together for the shower. It is more fun having multiple sets of eyes scanning the sky, and hearing the excitement when a meteor streaks by.

First, get to a dark location away from urban light glare. Find an unobstructed view of the north northeast horizon. Around 10:30pm local time, look for the constellation Cassiopeia having just risen above the north northeast horizon. This constellation looks like the capital letter “W '' and is just a bit squished. This is where the meteors will radiate. By midnight the namesake constellation of Perseus is in full view.

Give your eyes about 20 minutes to adjust to the darkness to achieve night vision allowing you to see the fainter meteors. Bring a chair, a blanket and dress warm. You’ll want to be comfortable since you’ll be outside for some time. This year is anticipated to be great with 90 – 100 meteors predicted per hour. Meteors don’t arrive at a steady rate. In one hour you’ll see 10 meteors in 5 minutes; then, not another single meteor for 45 minutes. The shower improves as the radiant point moves up higher in the night sky. The later you stay up, the more meteors reward you. Get out and take a peek at the Perseids!

Super-Duper Super Moons and a Blue Moon to Boot! August 1st, and August 30th

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Whoa! Two supermoons in one month?! That’s right and that’s newsworthy since the next time this happens (two supermoons in the same month) is 2032. Nine years in the future. The last time this happened was December 2009. As background, the Moon’s orbit is elliptical with points in its orbit where one is farthest away (apogee) and one that’s closest to Earth (perigee). The average distance between the Earth and Moon is 238,000 miles. The three or four closest approaches that the Moon makes around the Earth each year qualify as supermoons. All the more, the two supermoons in August, constituent of a more elusive and rare occurrence, a blue supermoon. More background, a blue moon has to do with the frequency of a full moon: A blue moon is when there are two full moons in the same calendar month.

If you miss the full Moon on August 1st, not to worry as the blue supermoon’s perigee on August 30th is especially bigger and brighter as it will be an intimate 222,043 miles from Earth. The proximity to Earth gives the Moon an enhanced appearance making it look about 8% bigger and approximately 16% brighter than a typical full moon.

What about getting together with some friends as the sun sets to watch the blue supermoon rise and dominate the entire evening? With Moon light, no candles required.

Saturn Returns, August 15th

The majestic gas giant planet of the rings returns with all of its grandeur and sway this month. It is Saturn’s time to shine. It has been awhile since we viewed the Roman god of wealth and agriculture, and father of Jupiter. Saturn, a planet without a defined surface, is visible the entire month, and on August 27th it reaches opposition (the Sun and Saturn are on opposite sides of the celestial sphere) and is visible from dusk to dawn.

Saturn is viewable throughout August. It is easiest to locate it mid-month as it rises from the east southeast horizon, around 90-minutes after sunset, local time. Look to the horizon, extend your arm and make a fist. Then turn your fist thumb up, and scan the area above and to the left and right of your thumb, for an off-white, the color of an old PC case, dot. Some see a pale yellow dot. Don’t forget that the closer Saturn is to the southeastern horizon and if the atmosphere is not stable, Saturn can take on some odd colors. Some see Saturn as blue in color in these conditions. How will you know this is the case when you observe the colors as unstable and change frequently? If this happens, just wait 30-minutes or so for Saturn to rise higher in the sky to see its true naked eye visual color.

Whether you are like the Romans and blame the star Sirius for your irritability and lethargy, or not, you deserve a break from the oppressive dog days of summer. Get relief from the heat on a cool August night, under a shimmering luminous sky full of pin pricks of light. Take in a deep breath or three with the sight of the first star. Now you’re ready. Put those barking dog days of August to rest.

Clear skies to you!