Poor August… it’s hard to follow up all those astronomical events in July. How do you follow up a total solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse, and the Apollo 11 50th anniversary? Luckily, there are several events in the night sky in August worth getting excited about and staying up late for.
The highlights include four meteor showers and a few close approaches with the moon and other celestial objects. In particular, mark your calendar for the peak of the Perseids on August 13th, one of the best and most active meteor showers of the year.
Unlike most months, you don’t need astronomical binoculars or a telescope to view these August night sky events. They can help, especially if you’re trying to spot Pluto or Jupiter’s Galilean moons or want a close-up of M44 at the end of the month.
With all these teasers, let’s dive into the top night sky events in August. Get out there and look up – it is a great month to do so.
August 2: Peak of the ⍺-Capricornids Meteor Shower
From the very first day, August kicks off quickly and maintains a steady pace of reasons to look skyward all month. This starts with the ⍺-Capricornids (alpha Capricordins) meteor shower, which peaks overnight on August 2nd.
While the ⍺-Capricornids began roughly July 15th and continue through August 10th, the maximum rate of meteors is expected overnight August 2nd-3rd, where you can expect to see as many as five meteors per hour. Look for meteor showers to originate near the constellation of Capricorn (hence their name), high in the southern sky.
August 6: Peak of the τ-Aquarii Meteor Shower
As mentioned, one of the most common night sky events in August is meteor showers! The first one, the τ-Aquarids, kicks off the month with its night of peak activity on August 6th.
The τ-Aquarids (pronounced ‘tau Aquarids’) are one of several Aquarid meteor showers throughout the year. However, the source of the Aquarids is not known – astronomers have never been able to identify the celestial object that leaves its trail of ice and rock behind which forms these meteors.
To see the τ-Aquarids meteor shower, look in the southeastern sky near midnight on August 6th. Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Aquarius, so look in the region of the sky around Aquarius to try and spot them. The maximum rate of meteors you’ll see during the τ-Aquarids is about 8 per hour. On the night of the 6th, the moon will be about ⅓ illuminated and won’t interfere with meteor shower-viewing prospects.
August 9: Close Approach of the Moon & Jupiter
On the night of August 9th, the Moon and Jupiter will make a close approach, passing within 2°25′ of one another. Jupiter has been shining brightly for the past several months; on this night the moon makes it easier than ever to spot our nearest gas giant neighbor.
The moon will be roughly 73% illuminated on the night of August 9th, which will cause light pollution that can interfere with your planet-gazing. Since the moon and Jupiter make their closest approach after sunset in the southeastern sky, stay up later to see Jupiter more clearly. With a pair of binoculars or a beginner telescope, you should be able to see Jupiter’s four Galilean moons (Io, Europa, Callisto, and Ganymede).
August 12: Close Approach of the Moon, Saturn & Pluto
Saturn and Pluto have been in the same part of the sky for years. On the night of August 12th, you have another chance to try and spot our favorite dwarf planet by using the Moon and Saturn to ‘hop’ from these solar system objects to Pluto.
After sunset on the night of August 12th, the Moon and Saturn will pass within 0°02′ of one another and simultaneously the Moon and Pluto will pass within 0°05′ of each other. However, the moon will be 91% illuminated and this light pollution will make it very difficult to spot Pluto through the brightness. For better Pluto prospects, wait an hour or two, then use Saturn and the moon to guide you.
August 13: Peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower
If you love the night sky, you already know what makes the night of August 13 so special – it’s the peak of the Perseids! The Perseids meteor shower peaks every year in mid-August; in 2019, this peak is expected to occur on the night of August 13th. On this night, you can expect to see up to 80 meteors per hour! This, combined with warm weather in the northern hemisphere, makes it the most popular meteor shower of the year.
The Perseids Meteor Shower is caused when the Earth passes through a stream of debris left by the Comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. Swift-Tuttle has a 133-year orbital period, but we experience a yearly meteor shower due to variations in the earth’s orbit and width of the debris stream.
To spot the Perseids, look for them radiating from a point in the northeastern sky. Unfortunately, the moon will be nearly full and 95% illuminated which will interfere with seeing some of the meteors. Nevertheless, it should still be one of the best meteor showers of 2019.
August 15: Venus at Greatest Brightness
Venus is typically hard to observe since its orbit lies closer to the sun than ours. On the night of August 15th, some may be able to see Venus just after sunset, as it reaches its greatest brightness in the evening sky.
To see Venus, look for it in the western sky just after sunset. You may also see Mars right above the horizon depending on your view.
August 21: Peak of the ⍺-Cygnid Meteor Shower
The fourth and final meteor shower in August will occur on the night of August 21st. On this night, you can look for the peak of the ⍺-Cygnid meteor shower at a rate of roughly 5 meteors per hour. This meteor shower is not as bombastic as the Perseids a week earlier, but the moon will be in a better phase at only 72% illuminated.
To spot ⍺-Cygnid meteors, look for the constellations of Cygnus with its distinctive cross asterism and Pegasus with its rectangle asterism. On the night of August 21st, ⍺-Cygnid meteors will appear to radiate from this area of the sky, high above the northeastern horizon.
August 28: Close Approach of the Moon & M44
The final event in the night sky in August occurs on the night of August 28th. On this night, the Moon and M44 (the Beehive Cluster) will pass within 0°33′ of each other in the early morning hours.
For optimal viewing, look for a waning crescent moon in the eastern sky. M44 will be visually “below” the Moon, nearer the horizon. Because the Moon is so little illuminated, it’s an ideal time to pull out your telescope to get a great view of M44. While you’ll be looking toward the horizon rather than straight up, pre-dawn stargazers will be rewarded with easy spotting of this moon sliver and open cluster.
Do you have questions or comments about these August night sky events? Let us know in the comments.