January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Celestial Highlights, August 2016

Posted: Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graph of evening planet setting times by Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt

August 2016 has rare gifts for skywatchers — for most of the month, all five naked-eye planets can be seen during evening twilight, and they participate in beautiful pairings and groupings! From a site with an unobstructed view of the western horizon, begin within half an hour after sunset, to catch Venus before it sinks too low. Use our evening twilight chart and diagrams selected from the Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar to guide you.

Venus at mag. –3.8 will be visible with unaided eye. (It will get higher in coming months, setting in a dark sky starting in October, climbing highest in January 2017, and reaching spectacular brilliance at mag. –4.8 in February, before quickly departing from the evening sky in late March.) Links to graphs of planet setting times in 2016-2017: [SoCal] [NorCal]

Jupiter, next in brightness at mag. –1.7, is easy to find not long after you spot Venus. For most of August, Jupiter appears to upper left of Venus, 1° closer to it each day until their spectacular close pairing on Sat. Aug. 27, described below. Thereafter Jupiter will appear to lower right of Venus.

Use binoculars all month, if necessary, to catch Mercury, starting August at mag –0.1 while 8° upper left of Venus, and fading to mag. +0.5 by Aug 24 while 6° lower left of Venus.

As the sky darkens, Mars (mag. –0.8 to –0.3), Saturn (+0.3 to +0.5), and first-magnitude Antares 6° from Saturn all month become easy for unaided eye. The two planets and the red supergiant star will have a striking arrangement Aug. 23 and 24.

Watch for these events (data for California sky watchers): 

In morning twilight Aug. 4-14, look daily within an hour before sunrise and watch for the first appearance of Procyon about 6°-7° N of east, and Sirius in ESE. Sirius is nearly in line with Orion’s belt, and completes the almost equilateral Winter Triangle with Betelgeuse (Orion’s shoulder) and Procyon. Look up the meanings of these stars’ names, the meaning of the term heliacal rising, and reasons for the importance of Sirius to ancient Egypt.

Aug. 4, beginning 30 minutes after sunset: Find 2.3-day-old crescent Moon low in west, and Venus 11° to its lower right. Mercury appears 2° left of Moon, nearly 9° upper left of Venus, and 15° lower right of Jupiter. Mars-Saturn are 10° apart in southern sky. Six solar system bodies, Venus-Mercury-Moon-Jupiter-Mars-Saturn, span 100°.

Aug. 5: Jupiter about 1° above Moon. Mercury remains 9° from Venus Aug 4-16 (max. dist. 9.2° on Aug. 10).

Aug. 6: Three planets, Jupiter-Mercury-Venus, appear 12°, 24°, and 33° to lower right of Moon. Mars and Saturn appear 57° and 65° to Moon’s upper left. Venus and Mars appear 90° apart – in quadrature this evening. Verify that by observation!

Aug. 7 and 8: Moon near Spica, brightest star in Virgo.

Aug11SkyCalendar

Click on image to view a larger version.

Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $12. http://www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

Aug. 8 and 9: Mars 0.9° from Delta Scorpii, middle and brightest of three stars in head of the Scorpion. Moon passes First Quarter phase at 11:21 a.m. PDT on Aug. 10. Tip for teachers and students – telescopic observation of Moon in daytime: When Moon is within 2 days before or after half full – this month, on afternoons of Aug. 8-11, near First Quarter phase, and on mornings of Aug. 23-26, near Last Quarter phase, thread a single polarizing filter into a low-power eyepiece of your telescope. Next, while viewing the Moon, rotate the eyepiece until the blue sky surrounding the Moon appears darkest, increasing contrast of Moon against sky for wonderful daytime views of lunar craters and other features!

Thurs Aug. 11: As darkness falls, note the beautiful diamond-shaped arrangement of Moon-Mars-Antares-Saturn, about 6°-7° on each side. Tonight’s moonset occurs just over halfway from sunset tonight until sunrise on Friday. Peak of the Perseid meteor shower occurs after moonset, in Friday’s predawn darkness hours! The dark, moonless sky should be wonderful for observing meteors.

Aug. 12: Moon 8° upper left of Saturn. The famous ringed planet marks the top vertex of an attractive triangle of three “stars”. Compare color and brightness of its two other members, Mars and Antares. Venus 15° lower right of Jupiter and 1° closer each day!

Aug. 16: Mercury at greatest elongation, 27° E of Sun. Since Mercury is more to left of setting Sun, rather than high above it, the planet sets well before darkness falls, and this is an unfavorable apparition for observers at mid-northern latitudes, despite Mercury’s unusually large angular distance from the Sun. Folks in southern California will have an easier time spotting it than folks in northern part of the state.

SkyCalendarAug16

Click on image to view a larger version.

Abrams Planetarium
A 1-year subscription to the Abrams Sky Calendar consists of 4 quarterly mailings of three calendars each. The quarters begin with February, May, August, and November issues. Cost: $12. http://www.abramsplanetarium.org/skycalendar/

Wed Aug. 17, dusk: Venus 10° lower right of Jupiter. Ten days to go! Five planets span 84°. Also, Full Moon overnight, at 2:26 a.m. PDT on Thursday. Moon shines with enhanced brightness in that hour as it narrowly misses penumbra of Earth’s shadow and reflects sunlight toward us and source of illumination; look up opposition effect.

Aug 19: Mercury 3.8° lower left of Jupiter, their minimum distance apart in a quasi-conjunction.

Aug 22: Venus 4.9° lower right of Jupiter! Aug 23: Ve-Ju = 3.9°, Me-Ju = 4.3°, Me-Ve = 6.4°, in a nearly isosceles triangle.

Aug 23 and 24: In order from top to bottom, Saturn, Mars, and Antares nearly line up, as Mars goes 4.4° S of Saturn and 1.8° N of Antares!

Aug 25 predawn (telescope): Moon occults 3.7-mag Gamma Tauri, point of “V” of Hyades star cluster, 1:17-2:10 a.m. PDT from Palm Springs, CA. Daytime occultation of Aldebaran visible through telescope: Disappearance on Moon’s bright side occurs in Palm Springs at 10:24 a.m. PDT, and reappearance at Moon’s dark side at 11:27 a.m. Last Quarter phase occurred on Aug 24, at 8:41 p.m. PDT, so Moon on Aug. 25 is a fat crescent. Follow waning Moon mornings through Aug. 31.

Aug 25: Ve-Ju 1.8°. Aug 26: Ve-Ju 0.8°.

Aug 27: This is the first evening Jupiter appears to lower right of Venus. The planets are just 0.2° apart, as seen from California — and about 0.1° apart from eastern U.S. – alert your friends in that part of the country! Mercury, faded to mag +0.8, appears 5.1° S (lower left) of the bright pair.

Aug 28: Ve-Ju 1.2° apart. Their separation increases by about 1° daily. Ve-Me 5.0° apart, the minimum distance for this passage.

Aug 31: Ve-Ju 4.3° apart, Jupiter getting lower each evening. On what date will you last spot Jupiter?

Sept. 1: New Moon, 2:03 a.m. PDT.

Sept. 2: Find 1.7-day-old thin crescent Moon very low in west, 4.5° lower right of Venus. Can you spot Jupiter within 2° to Moon’s lower right? Mercury is already gone, and Jupiter will sink into the solar glare within a few days.

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in East Lansing, MI and in and around Palm Springs. 

Robert D. Miller did graduate work in Planetarium Science and later astronomy and computer science at Michigan State University and remains active in research and public outreach in astronomy. 

Dr. Jeffrey L. Hunt, a retired planetarium director now living in the Chicago area, has taught astronomy and sky watching to all ages. He studied astronomy education at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. Jeff writes an astronomy blog at jeffreylhunt.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter at @jeff_hunt.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.

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