A U G U S T S K Y W A T C H
by Maya del Mar
August is the month of the sky spectacle of the millenniathe brightest Mars for perhaps 50,000 years. Mars is extraordinarily bright now, but as August moves on, we can see a 75% increase in brightness. Mars becomes even brighter than bright Jupiter.
Watch Mars all month, and see it brighten. At the beginning of the month, Mars will rise at 10 p.m., and reach its pinnacle at 3 a.m. By the end of August, the red planet will rise at nightfall, and reach its highest point at 12:30 a.m.very convenient viewing hours. Mars is now so bright, that when the sky is dark, we may be able to see faint shadows by its light.
Mars is closest to earth on August 27, opposes Sun on August 28, and is closest to Sun on August 30. The rare juxtaposition of these events gives us our brilliant Mars.
Get your spectacular views in now. Earth pulls away from Mars just as quickly as it has pulled up to it. Although it will still be bright in September, during September it loses all the extra August light. It will continue to dim rapidly through autumn.
The great summer triangle is at its best.
While you're noticing Mars, look for three bright stars in the form of a big triangle high in the sky. They are all flying high, associated with birds. Although they belong to three different constellations, together they make a landmark in the summer sky.
Vega is the bluest of these stars, and you can see it overhead after it gets dark. Vega travels exactly at the latitude of Washington DC and San Francisco, so it is more or less overhead for observers in the United States. Vega is part of Lyre, a small constellation which looks like the letter "V." Vega is an Arabian word for "swooping eagle."
Just to the east of Vega, also high in the sky, is Deneb, in the tail of the swan, Cygnus. We can see the bright stars of the swan's wings spread wide across the sky. The two stars of the swan's long neck lead out from the center body star, opposite from the tail. This constellation is sometimes called the Northern Cross.
Lower in the sky, towards the south, is Altair, who reminds me of a brilliant diamond. Altair is in the constellation Aquila, the eagle.
Learn these three stars, and use the triangle for a landmark in the summer sky.
Saturn, and possibly Uranus, are also visible.
Saturn is now an early morning planet, rising around 3 a.m. Note the morning of August 23. Look for the waning crescent moon hanging out near Saturn. The big winter constellations, such as Orion and Gemini, are rising then.
With binoculars, you may be able to see Uranus just above Mars. It looks like a faint green star. They float near each other for several weeks, coming closest at the end of September, when Mars turns direct.
The other visible planets are too close to the sun now for viewing.