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Starwatch: Prime time for viewing planets and stars

July 28, 2018

I love this time of the year because we still have plenty of summer left and the nights are getting a little longer. There is almost another full hour of nighttime and the sky is dark enough for star hunting by 10 p.m. The late-summer skies are filled with celestial gems and this August also brings us three great planets!

The Mars show is without the doubt the marquee event this month, despite the historic planetwide dust storm. Normally Mars is the only planet in our solar system that you can see the surface of though a telescope, but that’s not going happen as experts are forecasting this dust storm is bound to continue for maybe the next several months.

Nonetheless, Mars and Earth are at their closest approach to each other since 2003. In fact, next Tuesday Mars will be at its absolute closest to us, at just under 36.8 million miles. Mars will be by far the brightest starlike object in the southern half of the sky all night long, with an easily seen red-orange glow, although with the dust storm it’s taken on a more salmon hue. It rises early in the evening in the southeast and sets in the southwest during morning twilight.

More telescope targets

While Mars is getting all the headlines in August, Jupiter and Saturn are also fantastic telescope targets, with Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s ring system. At nightfall Jupiter is shining brightly in the south-southwestern sky, and Saturn is just off to the lower left in the low south-southeast. Jupiter is nearly as bright as Mars. Meanwhile the very bright planet Venus pops up in the very low western sky in the evening twilight, but sets shortly thereafter.

In addition to the planet show, we also have a meteor shower to catch this month. The Perseid Meteor Shower, one of the best meteor showers of the year, peaks early next week around August 11-13th. It will be wonderful this year because the moon will be pretty much out of the sky by then, and the meteors or “shooting stars” will be much more visible in the darker skies. I’ll have more on the Perseids in next week’s Starwatch.

Along with Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, the low southern sky this month is also the home of classic constellations. There’s Scorpius the Scorpion with the bright, brick-red star Antares at the heart of the Scorpion. It’s one of those few constellations that looks like what it’s supposed to be. In the low southeast sky is Sagittarius, which is supposed to be a half-man/half-horse shooting an arrow. Forget about that; most people I know refer to it by its nickname, “The Teapot.”

The brightest star right now is Arcturus, parked in the high western sky. Arcturus is also the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Bootes looks more like a giant kite, with the orange reddish star Arcturus at the tail of the kite. The second brightest star in the evening heavens is Vega, the bright star in a small, faint constellation called Lyra the Lyre, or Harp. Vega is a brilliant bluish-white star perched high over the eastern sky, almost overhead. Vega and the small faint parallelogram just to the lower east of Vega are supposed to outline a celestial harp in the sky. If you’re quiet enough, you may even hear the music.

‘Summer Triangle’

As you continue to look eastward, you’ll notice two other bright stars that form a triangle with Vega. This is known as the “Summer Triangle.” The star to the lower left of Vega is Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan, otherwise known as the “Northern Cross,” for obvious reasons. The star to the lower right of Vega is Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.

In the northern sky we have the famous dippers. The Big Dipper, which is actually the rear end and the tail of the Big Bear Ursa Major, is hanging lazily by its handle, or tail if you please, in the high northwestern sky. The Little Dipper, which is the same as the Little Bear, is standing up on its handle and is much dimmer than the Big Dipper. Sadly, it’s darn near invisible in the metro area, with the exception of the outer ring of suburbs. The only really bright star in the Little Dipper is Polaris, otherwise known as the North Star, at the end of the handle.

Polaris is by no means the brightest star in the sky, but it is the “linchpin” because every single star and planet, including the sun and moon, appear to revolve around it every 24 hours. That’s because Polaris is shining directly above the Earth’s North Pole, and as our world rotates all of the stars appear to us to whirl around the North Star.

Instructions for sky map

To use this map, cut it out and attach it to a stiff backing. Hold it over your head and line up the compass points on the map to the compass points on the horizon where you’re observing from. East and west on this map are not backwards. This is not a misprint. I guarantee that when you hold this map over your head, east and west will be in their proper positions. Also use a small flashlight and attach a red piece of cloth or red construction paper over the lens of the flashlight. You won’t lose your night vision when you look at this map in red light.

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