For many of us, August is synonymous with shooting stars.
Despite their name, shooting stars are not actually stars, just tiny flecks of interplanetary dust that burn up upon entry into Earth’s atmosphere; they’re also know as meteors. Meteor showers occur when the Earth intersects the clouds of dust particles that lie in its path. Since our planet follows the same path year after year, the showers usually occur at the same period as well. The main attraction in August will be the Perseids.
The Perseid meteor stream (or meteor shower)—resulting from Earth crossing the trail of dust left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle—is one of the year’s richest and certainly the most beloved shower in the Northern Hemisphere. When viewing conditions are ideal (no clouds, Moon, light pollution, etc.), you can expect up to 100 meteors per hour. If you trace the glowing trains backward, they all seem to originate from the same region of the sky, the radiant, located in the constellation Perseus, from which the shower gets its name.
This year, the Perseids are expected to peak on August 12 at around 9 p.m., which unfortunately coincides with the moonrise. To add insult to injury, the Moon will be full the day before (August 11 at 10:36 p.m.), shining with all its might and effectively spoiling nighttime observations. The best time to watch this unfortunate display will be toward the end of the night, when the radiant is at its highest in the sky and the Moon is low on the western horizon. While the 2022 showers will not go down in history, remember that August 12 is not the only time to admire the Perseids: The number of meteors slowly ramps up in the second half of July and then gradually tapers off until the end of August (July 17 to August 24 to be precise). This means you can still prepare your wish list!
Spotlight on the lord of the rings
Granted, the Perseids are disappointing this year. But all is not lost, since you can still point a telescope at one of the jewels of the night sky, Saturn, which will reach opposition on August 14. In this configuration, our Earth sits between the Sun and Saturn: The distance separating us from that planet is the smallest it will ever get this year, which makes it the most favourable position for telescope viewing. At the time of its opposition, Saturn reaches its highest point in the sky, due south, in the middle of the night (around 1 a.m. EDT).
Throughout the month of August, the sixth planet of the Solar System will lie in the constellation Capricornus, 15 degrees below the celestial equator, at about 74 light-minutes (1,336,656,975 km) from Earth. This planet’s main attraction is undoubtedly its famous rings, which are currently tilted 13.9° toward Earth, making it possible to observe a few details. Saturn is quite low in the sky, so make sure you have an unobstructed view of the southern horizon.
Mars prepares its return
Mars continues its journey through the constellation Taurus, becoming increasingly luminous in the morning sky. By month’s end, the Red Planet will pass very close to the Pleiades (M45) and Hyades, two open clusters of young stars, located respectively 444 and 151 light-years away from us. These two clusters are particularly interesting to look at through binoculars or telescopes: The Pleiades, in particular, appear as a mass of bluish-coloured stars. Adding further magic to the scene, the last quarter Moon will slip between Mars and the Pleiades in the early morning of August 19: Turn your gaze to the southeast after 4 a.m., before dawn takes over.