There’s so much going on in the Rochester night sky this month! The biggest show is the annual Perseid meteor shower, one of the best of the year. It’ll be spectacular this year because there will be no moonlight getting in the way. Skies will be truly dark. If you’re not already there, you owe it to yourself to head out to the countryside, as far away from light pollution as possible.
The Perseid meteor shower peaks the nights of Aug. 11-12 and Aug. 12-13, although it’ll be almost as good two to three nights before the peak. Keep that in mind if the weather forecast isn’t looking the best for the peak nights. The Earth in its orbit is plowing into a thick debris trail left in the wake of Comet Swift-Tuttle. I’ll write more about the Perseids in next week’s column.
We’re blessed with three bright planets this month: Venus, Saturn and Jupiter. All month long, look for Venus popping out in the evening twilight in the low western sky. Even though Venus is the brightest star-like object in the sky, it’s not that great of a telescope target, since it’s completely shrouded in perpetual clouds.
One thing you will see when you point your telescope at Venus is that it’s not a perfectly round disk, but oval, like a gibbous moon. Both Venus and Mercury go through phases like the moon, since their solar orbits around the sun lie within Earth’s orbit.
By contrast, there’s much to see with a telescope on Saturn and Jupiter. Now is the best time because both planets are at their closest approaches to Earth this year. Shortly after evening twilight, they’ll jump right out at you in the low southeast sky. They are the brightest star-like objects in that part of the sky, with Jupiter the brighter of the two, just to the lower left of Saturn.
Viewing Saturn and Jupiter through even a small telescope is really a treat. You’ll be blown away by Saturn. It’s surreal! Along with the ring system, you’ll see Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. It resembles a dim star. You might even see some of Saturn’s fainter moons.
After you marvel at Saturn, check out Jupiter. You’ll easily resolve the disk of the planet and possibly some of its darker cloud bands. Look for up to four of Jupiter’s brightest moons that line up on both sides of the largest planet in our solar system. They resemble tiny stars that never get far away from Jupiter.
Not far from Jupiter and Saturn are two of my favorite constellations, Scorpius the Scorpion and Sagittarius the Archer, in full view in the low southern sky. Scorpius really looks like a scorpion, with the bright red star Antares marking the heart of the beast.
Just to the left of Scorpius is Sagittarius, a constellation that outlines a Centaur, or half-man, half-horse, shooting an arrow at Scorpius. Sagittarius looks much more like a teapot, with its spout points in the direction of the center of our Milky Way galaxy.
In the eastern sky is the famous “Summer Triangle,” made up of three bright stars: Vega, Deneb and Altair. They are the brightest stars in that part of the sky, and each of them is the brightest in their individual constellations. Vega is the brightest star in Lyra the Harp; Deneb is the brightest in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the Northern Cross; and Altair is the brightest shiner in Aquila the evil Eagle.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to email@example.com.
The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org.