After an epic July, August follows up with a steady stream of interesting astronomical events. The list this month includes four planetary close approaches, three meteor showers, two dwarf planets, and one asteroid. In particular, mark your calendar for a last glimpse at Comet NEOWISE and for the peak of the Perseids on August 12th, one of the best and most active meteor showers of the year.
This month’s astronomical events are split on whether or not you need a telescope. Some – like the Perseids and planet-gazing – require no extra gear, whereas others – such as viewing distant Eris, or Ceres and Massalia in the asteroid belt – require one. If you want a telescope to help enjoy this month’s night sky events, we have a guide to the best stargazing telescopes. From the Meade Polaris 130 (under $200) to the Orion Atlas 8 EQ-G GoTo ($2000), you can find one for your astronomy interest and budget.
With all these teasers, let’s dive into the top astronomical events happening in the August night sky. Get out there and look up – it is a great month to do so!
Early August: Comet NEOWISE Fading
For the first few days of August, Comet NEOWISE will appear at its highest in the sky as it slowly fades from view. If you haven’t seen it yet, these nights (approaching the full moon on August 3rd) are the last chance you’ll have to spot the comet before it sets out on its 6,800 year orbital journey. Click here to read our tips on trying to see NEOWISE.
August 1: Close Approach of the Moon & Jupiter
August kicks off with a bang, as a nearly-full Moon and Jupiter will make a close approach, passing within 1°31′ 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 96% illuminated on the night of August 1st, 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 2: Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn
Saturn and Pluto have been in the same part of the sky for years. On the night of August 2nd, 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 2nd, the Moon and Saturn will pass within 2°16′ of one another. However, the moon will be 98% illuminated and this light pollution will interfere with planet-gazing at their time of closest approach. For better Saturn prospects, wait an hour or two, then use the moon to guide you.
August 9: Close Approach of the Moon & Mars
The first half of August continues with more planet-viewing opportunities, as on the early morning of August 9th Mars and the Moon will have their own close approach. The pair will appear at their closest – just 0°45′ apart in the sky – in the pre-dawn hours of the 9th. And, as the moon will be 71%, a marked improvement over its brightness a few days earlier during close approaches with Jupiter and Saturn.
August 12: Peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower
If you love the night sky, you already know what makes the night of August 12th so special – it’s the peak of the Perseids! The Perseids meteor shower peaks every year in mid-August; in 2020, this peak is expected to occur on the night of August 12th. On this night, you can expect to see up to 150 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. Unlike last year when a nearly-full moon interfered with viewing prospects, this year the moon will be only 38% illuminated and offer much less light pollution in the sky.
August 15: Close Approach of the Moon & Venus
Venus is typically hard to observe since its orbit lies closer to the sun than ours. On the night of August 15th, it’ll be easier to spot than usual as the Moon makes a close approach, passing within 3°59′ of bright Venus in the evening sky.
To see Venus, look for it in the western sky just after sunset. The waning crescent moon (just 15% illuminated) will help guide you and offer little interference with its reflected light.
August 17: Peak of the κ-Cygnid Meteor Shower
The second meteor shower in August will occur on the night of August 17th. On this night, you can look for the peak of the κ-Cygnid meteor shower at a rate of roughly 3 meteors per hour. This meteor shower is not as bombastic as the Perseids a few days earlier, but the moon will be only 1% illuminated – nearly new – and ideal for a night of stargazing and meteor spotting, even if those shooting stars are quite infrequent.
To spot κ-Cygnid meteors, look for the constellations of Draco near Cygnus (with its distinctive cross asterism). On the 17th, κ-Cygnid meteors will appear to radiate from this area of the sky, high above the northeastern horizon.
August 28: Ceres & Massalia at Opposition, Close Approach of the Moon & Jupiter
The night of August 28th is a busy one for astronomical sights – especially if you have a telescope to help you see and really enjoy them!
First, the dwarf planet Ceres will be at opposition – that is, well-illuminated from our perspective here on earth – and ideally suited to spot in the constellation Aquarius. It will be at its highest point in the sky around midnight local time, no matter where you are on the northern hemisphere.
Next, change from dwarf planet-spotting to asteroid-hunting: Massalia, a stony asteroid in the main asteroid belt, will also be at opposition on this night – and also in the constellation Aquarius. Use a night sky app to help spot this one with a telescope.
Last, Jupiter and the Moon will have a second close approach this month, appearing just 1°24′ from one another in the sky. As the moon will be only 10 days old and 83% illuminated, this is a much better chance to spot big, bright Jupiter with less moonlight interference than earlier in the month.
August 29: Close Approach of the Moon & Saturn
Similar to the second close approach with Jupiter, the Moon will make a second close approach with Saturn on the night of August 29th. On this night, they’ll pass within 2°12′ of one another in the sky. This is only slightly closer than earlier in the month; also similar to Jupiter’s close approach, the moon will be less-fully illuminated (though admittedly not by much) at just 87% on the night of the 29th.
August 31: Peak of the Aurigid Meteor Shower, Conjunction of Mars & Eris
To round out a busy month (especially a busy second half of the month), there are two final astronomical events in the August night sky worth trying to see if the conditions are right – and you’re able to avoid that bright nearly-full moon.
First, southern hemisphere stargazers can enjoy the peak of the Aurigid meteor shower. This isn’t a particularly strong meteor shower, with a maximum ZHR (zenithal hourly rate) of just 6 meteors per hour. The peak actually occurs around 8:00am in the morning of the 31st; the radiant point near the constellation Auriga will be below the horizon for most northern hemisphere viewers. Those far enough south will do best to rise early to try and spot these meteors.
Lastly, Mars lends a helping hand to round out the month, making a close approach to the dwarf planet Eris. This is an excellent opportunity to use Mars to try and spot Eris with a telescope. (Uranus isn’t too far away either.)
Mars and Eris will appear no closer than 7°58′ apart in the sky late on the night of the 31st; a starfinder app will help your search. The Moon will potentially cause problems too, depending on your timing – it’s 98% full on this night. However, looking high in the southern sky, you might get lucky to spot distant Eris thanks to Mars close proximity.
Do you have questions or comments about these August night sky events? Let us know in the comments.