Patrick Rowan’s Skywatch: August great time for skywatching

Aug 9 2018

August evenings offer a special blend of ease and comfort.

August is great for skywatching here in southern New England, both day and night. Summer is loosing its grip as the days shorten ever so slightly, but with increasing dispatch. The earlier sunsets are hard to ignore, as is the temptation to stay out until after dark. Don’t fight it.

August evenings offer a special blend of ease and comfort: The mosquitoes are diminishing just as crickets and their kin step up their game. The male New England tree frog starts making noise. Taken together, the variety of insect and small animal sounds gives these nights astonishing depth.

Luckily, nature’s symphony fills the air in our own backyards precisely on those warm evenings that we choose to linger outside for a little longer, because that is also when these little critters tend to be most active. Pay attention and listen often: the cacophony reaches otherworldly heights.

I used to imagine how the din would sound to the ears of some newly arrived space aliens, while at the same time wondering what amazing sounds must flourish on those countless alien worlds we know exist out there.

In August, dryer, fresher air tends to slip farther south, carrying cool fronts from Canada and welcomed relief from the heat and humidity. These are the first hints of fall — my favorite season. Canada Geese may not be migrating yet, but a few early birds sense enough northern air nipping at their tail feathers to take flight at day’s end, and head to their favorite nighttime haunts. The grand V-shaped formations of larger groups cannot be far behind. In late August, broad-winged hawks stir in preparation of their own September migrations.

By the end of this month, the sun sets before 7:30 p.m. in Springfield and vicinity. The early dark will be a lure for the youngsters. Such late summer evenings long ago gave me my first, sensational taste of the night. I’ll never forget the excitement of exploring this unfamiliar environment. It made me cherish this alternate world enough to resist my parents’ calls to come inside. Why did they always seem to do that just as we were acclimating to these new surroundings? It was so frustrating.

Night is an important experience for children, especially these days as the advance of artificial lights of population centers exile the darkness, pushing it farther to the outskirts. It’s something to think about as you consider the many other reasons to get yourself and the kids out there. This month’s celestial incentives should add enough to get you and yours out before the weather drives you indoors.

In just a couple of days, the annual Perseid meteor shower will reach its peak. The best nights are on August 11-12 and 12-13, when as many as several dozen meteors per hour may be spotted under moonless skies. The Perseids are a popular favorite, coming during summer vacation season, and when clouds are less likely to get in the way. This year is even better because no moonlight will wash out views of the dimmer meteors.

But seeing the most requires an investment. Comfort is essential. Jackets and blankets will help keep you warm as you lie motionless out in the open. Remember that clear skies also bring dropping temperatures, and that can mean dew, whose dampness conspires to cool you down even more. So don’t skimp on warmth.

But that isn’t enough. You need to be comfortable to focus on the stars for more than a few moments. Some  may find a blanket or two to lay on sufficient, while others may need a pad or reclining lawn chair. And most important of all, get as far away from lights as you can. If at all possible, avoid having even one light in your field of view.

One light may not seem like much, but it will cause you to miss meteors, while robbing you of the full night-sky experience. If you can’t see the Milky Way stretching across the sky, you’ll miss all but the brightest meteors.

The final ingredient is patience. It takes time for your eyes to adapt to the dark so that you may see the fainter meteors. It doesn’t matter what direction you look as long as you have widest open sky in front of you.

Here’s a little refresher on meteor terminology: Meteoroids are the raw materials floating through space. Meteors are the “shooting stars” we see burning up high in the atmosphere at night. Meteorites are the pieces that make it all the way to the ground without burning up.

The Perseid meteors are the result of dust and pebble-sized remnants of Comet Swift-Tuttle that hit Earth’s atmosphere. Most don’t survive the fall to become meteorites.

Depending on when you look, you may also to see the steady light of an artificial satellite or two orbiting the Earth. The International Space Station, the biggest and brightest of all, orbits above 200 miles altitude. It is making a series of passes over Western Massachusetts in the coming days, and one of the best is tonight.

At 8:27 p.m., start scanning the sky about halfway up in the west-northwest for a light moving toward you, brightening as it advances. It will reach an angle of 75 degrees up (90 degrees is overhead) before continuing to the southeast. It will remain in sight for total of 4 minutes before disappearing low in the southeast.

For NASA’s guide to Space Station sightings, visit spotthestation.nasa.gov

And there are the planets. Four are currently visible in a low arc spanning the horizon from southeast to west-southwest at about 9p.m. From left to right, they are Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. Most notable right now is Mars, which is just past opposition. It was closest to Earth (35.8 million miles) on July 31. Still nearly at its brightest in 15 years, many are impressed by its fiery orange appearance, which helps distinguish it from the others.

It’s been two months now since the legendary 15 year old Mars Opportunity rover fell silent, and still no word from her. The planet-wide dust storm still rages, and the outcome remains more uncertain than ever.

Strong evidence was recently presented for an underground lake at Mars’s south pole, while new calculations indicate that there is not enough carbon dioxide gas (CO2) there to terraform the planet.

Venus is still the brightest, beaming in the west during evening twilight while Jupiter shines in the southwest, and Saturn glows meekly in the south. As Venus descends in the west, Mars starts low in the southeast. As the sky shifts farther west, Venus sets, Jupiter lowers, and Saturn crosses the south.

But Mars is just getting started tracing its low path, cresting in the south around midnight, and disappearing below the southwest horizon before dawn.

The two brightest stars early these evenings are golden Arcturus and Vega. Arcturus starts the night halfway up in the west, but it is on its way down. Vega is climbing almost overhead from the east. It marks the brightest corner of the large, so-called Summer Triangle pattern of stars, or asterism.

Perhaps, the best known asterism is the Big Dipper, which can be found lowering to the northwest these evenings. The Big Dipper’s curved handle points to Arcturus. It is easy to remember that the Big Dipper’s handle “arcs to Arcturus.”

Find rise and set times for the sun and moon, and follow ever-changing celestial highlights in the Skywatch section of the Weather Almanac in The Republican and Sunday Republican.

Patrick Rowan has written Skywatch for The Republican since 1987 and has been a Weather Almanac contributor since the mid 1990s. A native of Long Island, Rowan graduated from Northampton High School, studied astronomy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the ’70s and was a research assistant for the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory. From 1981 to 1994, Rowan worked at the Springfield Science Museum’s Seymour Planetarium, most of that time as planetarium manager. Rowan lives in the Florence section of Northampton with his wife, Clara.

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