Driftless Dark Skies: Planets and Perseids

August 5th, 2016 by John Heasley

I remember bundling up mornings back in February to enjoy the sight of five planets at once in the predawn skies.  This month, we can do it without bundling or rising early.  All five visible planets will be in the evening sky starting around 9pm.  The Moon is an excellent guide to help pick them out. 

Mercury is the most challenging of the planets.  It never rises very high above the horizon and is never far from the Sun, so pick a spot with a clear view to the west.  Farm fields and ridgetops work well.  On August 4, Mercury will be just to the right of a slim crescent Moon.  Venus will be even lower in the sky to the right of Mercury and the Moon. Binoculars will help you to see them in the twilight.  On August 5, the Moon has waxed a little fuller and will be just to the right of Jupiter.  By August 11, the waxing gibbous Moon is right above Mars with Saturn to the left. 

Once you have identified all five worlds, it can be exciting to watch them shift position in the sky from night to night.  Jupiter moves closer to Mercury and Venus this month.  Don’t miss the conjunction of Jupiter and Venus on August 27 just after sunset when they will be just a tenth of a degree apart and appear as one “star”.  Saturn starts the month to the left of Mars, but by the end of August it is to the right of Mars.  Mar is directly below Saturn the evening of August 25. 

photo by NASA

photo by NASA

August is also an excellent month to enjoy meteors.  Our planet will be orbiting through the dust trails left behind by several comets.  These grains and small rocks leave bright trails in the sky as they enter our atmosphere.    The first week of August is a good time to look.  The Moon sets early and the sky is dark.  The most famous meteor shower, the Perseids, will peak the morning of August 12.  You will probably see the most meteors between moonset (around 1am) and dawn (around 4 am).  The time after sunset can also be good.  There are fewer meteors, but they tend to be brighter and leave longer trails. 

There are two chances to gather with your fellow stargazers this month.  Starsplitters will be having a public program at Wyalusing State Park on August 6.  There is a Perseids Party at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on August 12.  Wherever you are, take time to look up and enjoy the planets and Perseids in the dark skies of the Driftless Area. 

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.