July’s late new moon (July 28) will set the stage for exceptionally dark skies to kick off August. While I generally take this opportunity to spotlight some cool galaxy or nebula to explore under these ideal conditions, I'm going to recommend that you grab a blanket, some bug repellent, and try and catch some shooting stars instead.
The reason? August's full moon, rising on the 11th, will spoil all but the brightest shooting stars from the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. You'll likely have greater success catching the Perseids on the early side (the shower actually stars in mid-July), which will also overlap with the Delta Aquarids meteor shower in late July.
These showers are often best just before dawn, so set your alarm (and coffee maker) on the early side, and enjoy these moonless evenings while they last!
On August 4, with PANSTARRS positioned to perfectly catch some rays from the sun, it's estimated that the comet will achieve a magnitude 9 brightness. That's still not good enough for the naked eye (which usually requires a minimum of mag 6 with dark skies), but you should be able to spot it well using a small telescope or binoculars. As shown in the sky map above, reflecting placement on August 4 at around 9 p.m. EST, look just above the constellation Scorpius to take in the wonder of this icy, faraway visitor.
August is peak Milky Way season in the northern latitudes, providing not only comfortable temperatures from which to gaze into our galaxy’s shimmering core, but also great positioning in the night sky.
According to Forbes, the "Milky Way window" is when skies are free from bright moonlight, so between the last quarter moon and a few days after the new moon. By mid-August, the Milky Way will be visible by 10 p.m. and be directly overhead by midnight—perfect dark sky conditions for making this hazy band of stars pop.
Our dusty galactic core, only visible during the summer months, is located in the constellation Sagittarius. It lies about 26,000 light years away from Earth and contains a supermassive black hole some four million times the size of our sun. Surrounding it are 10 million stars, composed of mostly old red giants. The bands that emanate from the core (the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy) are estimated to contain an additional 100-400 billion stars.
Regarded as one of the best celestial events of the year, the Perseid meteor shower occurs from July 17 to Aug. 24 and peaks on the evening of Aug. 12. The shower, sometimes creating as many as 60 to 200 shooting stars per hour, is produced as Earth passes through debris left over from the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle.
This 16-mile-wide periodic comet, which completes an orbit around the sun every 133 years, has been described as "the single most dangerous object known to humanity." This is because every instance of its return to the inner solar system brings it ever closer to the Earth-moon system. Though astronomers believe the comet bears no threat for at least the next 2,000 years, future impacts cannot be ruled out.2
If the comet were to hit Earth, scientists believe Swift-Tuttle would be at least 300 times more powerful than the asteroid or comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. For now, you can take in the beauty of the debris from this harbinger of doom by looking north toward the constellation Perseus. Unfortunately, a full moon coinciding with peak Perseids is likely to wash out all but the brightest shooting stars.
August's full moon, nicknamed the Sturgeon Moon, will peak for the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on the evening of Aug. 11 at 9:36 p.m.
The Sturgeon Moon gets its name from the species of fish native to both Europe and the Americas that's easily caught at this time of year. Other nicknames include the Corn Moon, Fruit Moon, and Grain Moon. In countries experiencing winter, such as New Zealand, native Māori called this full moon "Here-turi-kōkā" or "the scorching effect of fire is seen on the knees of man." This reference is to warm fires that glow during the Southern Hemisphere's coldest month.
August's full moon is also the last of 2022's supermoons—a moniker for when a full moon reaches 90% of perigee, its closest approach to Earth.3 Supermoons appear about 30% brighter and 14% larger than the moon at its farthest point (called apogee), so take a moment to look up and enjoy this summer lunar light show!4
On Aug. 14, Saturn will be at its closest and brightest to Earth for the year. Called opposition, this annual celestial phenomenon occurs when Earth's faster orbit places it directly between a planet and the sun. Even better, you'll be able to pick out Saturn all night as it rises just after sunset in the east and sets in the west just after sunrise. To find it, first look for Jupiter (which at this time of year is the brightest object in the evening sky). Saturn will be to the right and slightly higher in the sky. The sky map above is reflective of placement around midnight EST in the southeastern sky on Aug. 14.
While opposition brings Saturn closest to Earth, it’s still a staggering 746 million miles away (compared to the 38 million miles that divided Earth and Mars during their last opposition in 2020). Nonetheless, Saturn is so large (roughly 764 Earths could fit inside) that you should be able to get a sense of its rings with just a pair of binoculars. A small telescope will help bring out the details and may even give you a glimpse of Titan—Saturn’s largest moon and, at 3,200 miles in diameter, larger than the planet Mercury!
Moonlight spoiling the show on Aug. 14th? No worries, Saturn will retain its opposition brilliance throughout the month.
Say Hello to Our Solar System's Last Remaining Protoplanet (Aug. 22)
Asteroid Vesta, home to a 14-mile-high mountain and the largest in our solar system, will be at opposition and brightly lit by the sun in the morning hours of August 22. This 326-mile-wide object of beauty (with a surface reflectivity of 43% compared to our own moon’s 12%) resides in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.5
The sky map above shows Vesta's placement in the night sky around 2am EST on Aug. 22. A late-rising, waning crescent moon will keep skies relatively dark, providing you with a decent window to try and see the solar system's lone remaining protoplanet.
Ever wonder what causes the beautiful bands of color in the eastern sky at sunset or the western sky at sunrise? The dark blue band stretching 180 degrees along the horizon is actually the Earth's shadow emanating some 870,000 miles into space. The golden-red portion, nicknamed the "Belt of Venus," is Earth's upper-atmosphere illuminated by the setting or rising sun.
Now that you know about this phenomenon, choose a night or morning sometime to try and pick it out. You'll need a western or eastern horizon that's fairly unobstructed to get a clear view of our planet's huge curved shadow.