Friday, August 1, 2014

The August Sky

As August dawns on us, the nights are finally starting to get longer again in a noticeable manner. As we approach another equinox, the loss of daylight (and thus the gain of dark) will accelerate once again. During the course of the month, we will lose about 1 ½ hours of daylight, which, combined with even earlier rise times of the summer favorites, makes for good times of astronomical proportions.

Cool Constellations
With the advent of August, the spring constellations are rapidly saying goodbye, with Virgo the next major constellation to disappear. Also getting low in the Southwest is Libra and Bootes and Corona are now just about due West at nightfall. In the North, the Big Dipper continues its dive, flattening out as it starts to approach the horizon. Perhaps the best part of the August sky is that one doesn't need to stay up overly late to see all the best sights of summer. At nightfall, Hercules is still near zenith, the Summer Triangle (Lyra, Cygnus, and Aquila along with hangers-on Saggita and Delphinus) is at zenith, Scorpius is due South with Ophiuchus and Sagittarius on either side, both still well-placed for observing. Also, the Milky Way is at its best positioning right after nightfall, too. For people who like to stay up late (or get up extremely early) a fall preview in the form of Pegasus, both Pisces, Cetus, Andromeda, Aries, Capricorn, Aquarius, and even Perseus is on tap in the wee hours of the morning while, by month's end, the bright stars of winter in the form of Orion, Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini are visible, too.

Planetary Perceptions
In terms of planets, August isn't shaping up to be all that great of a month despite 4 of the 5 classical planets being visible. Why? All of the visible planets are rather close to the Sun. Starting in the evening, both Mars and Saturn are visible, though time to catch them under truly dark skies is minimal even if you have a low Western horizon. For most of us, though, these two planets, especially Mars, will be dusk objects from the backyard. In the predawn sky, Venus is still rather well-placed at month';s start but, nothing being forever, this exceptionally long apparition of Venus will be starting to come to a conclusion in August as the planet begins a dramatic drop toward the Sun's glare as the month unfolds. On the other hand, Jupiter, which just reappeared from behind the Sun as a morning planet late last month continues its rise out of the solar glare but still remains rather low in the Eastern predawn sky. Mercury? Well, it will make a dusk appearance starting mid month but, thanks to the angle of the ecliptic plane, it's about as bad as an appearance as is geometrically possible, barely popping over the Western horizon.

And let's not forget . . . 

Tonight's Sky for August 1: Lengthening Nights
We are now about half way into summer, as in nearly 45 days past the Summer Solstice, which features the shortest night of the year. By now, half way between the Summer Solstice and Vernal Equinox (12 days of day and 12 of night), the nights are obviously getting longer as the sunrises come later and the sets earlier. Throughout the month, the length of the night will increase dramatically, which stands in stark contrast to June and July.

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