The Sky This Week, August 19 – 26, 2014 !

The Sky This Week, 2014 August 19 – 26

Planets in the morning, planets in the evening…
Globular star cluster Messier 22 in Sagittarius
Imaged with an 80mm (3.1-inch) f/6 Antares Sentinel refractor
and a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR
from near Morattico, Virginia USA

The Moon wanes in the early morning sky this week, wending her way through the rising stars of winter as she heads toward New Moon, which will occur on the 25th at 10:13 am Eastern Daylight Time.  Luna passes above the bright stars of Orion as the week opens, then drifts through southern Gemini before drawing a bead on Venus and Jupiter in the gathering morning twilight by the week’s end.  You’ll have a nice photo opportunity to catch the Moon with Venus and Jupiter half an hour before sunrise on the 23rd.

The bright Moon did a pretty effective job of limiting my observations of the peak of the Perseid meteor shower last week, but the shower is still producing a handful of bright, swift meteors for those of you who might be out and about under dark skies in the wee hours.  There is also an uptick in background “sporadic” meteor rates as well as several minor meteor showers that come and go in late August and September, so you chances of spotting a few are better than average.  In addition, the absence of the Moon means that the summer Milky Way is visible from dark-sky locations, cutting a ghostly luminous swath that bisects the sky by around 11:00 pm.  I had a very enjoyable night in late July picking out star clusters and nebulae with my telescope from dark New England skies before the Moon became my nemesis.

As we head toward late summer our selection of planets is limited to early evening and early morning hours.  Shortly after sunset you can catch the glimmers of ruddy Mars and yellowish Saturn in the southwestern sky.  Over the past few weeks the red planet has covered quite a bit of celestial real estate to home in on Saturn, and this week he’ll pass the ringed planet on his eastward trek around the ecliptic.  If you have a good dark site or access to binoculars you can watch mars from night to night as he first passes just over a degree south of the star Zubenelgenubi on the evenings of the 20th through the 22nd.  After that he’ll scoot just over three degrees south of Saturn.  Binoculars should show an interesting color contrast between the white glow of the star and the warmer tints of the two planets.  Binoculars will also show that Zubenelgenubi is a wide double star.  Small telescopes will further enhance the differences between the two planets: Mars is a small rocky world that will show a tiny pink-hued disc, while Saturn’s orb will be twice as big and surrounded by the planet’s distinctive rings.  While they appear close together in the sky, keep in mind that Saturn is over 800 million miles (1.31 billion kilometers) farther away from us than is Mars!

In addition to the rising constellations of winter, early risers can catch the other two bright planets in gathering morning twilight.  Venus and Jupiter have just had a very close conjunction over the past few mornings (unfortunately obscured by clouds for me), and even though Venus is drawing away from Old Jove the pair will still be prominent above the eastern horizon for the rest of the week.  Jupiter is gradually rising a little earlier each day while Venus rises a tad later, but they form an attractive pair that will be further enhanced by the slender crescent Moon on the morning of the 23rd.  Venus has been with us in the morning sky since the beginning of the year, but she is now beginning her final plunge to conjunction with the Sun in mid-October.  By that time Jupiter will be rising at around midnight, ready to start dazzling us in the evening sky with the start of the new year.


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