The gas giant planets Jupiter and Saturn will dominate the August nights, as both Mars and Venus will be largely lost in the glare of the sun. Keen-eyed observers will also be able to hunt down the innermost planet, Mercury, as it makes its best morning appearance of the year. And despite interference from the moon, sky-watchers should be on the lookout for bright Perseid fireballs.
So mark your August calendar, and gaze skyward on the next clear night.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the first week of August will present your last opportunity of the year to enjoy some eye-catching displays of noctilucent clouds.
These wispy “night shining” clouds appear at the edge of space, as ice crystals form around dust particles falling into Earth’s atmosphere. Because of their extreme altitude, the clouds remain illuminated even after the sun has set from the viewpoint of people on the surface, creating glowing streamers high in the sky in the evening twilight. But as days get shorter with the onset of fall, noctilucent clouds will fade from view.
August is most famous for delivering the Perseids, one of the most prolific annual meteor showers. But with that high-profile sky show battling the full moon’s glare this year, your best bet for getting your meteor fix may be to look for minor showers like the Alpha-Capricornids.
This shower will peak in the early morning hours near the constellation Capricornus in the southwestern sky. About half a dozen shooting stars an hour should be visible from a dark site in the mid-northern latitudes. However, these rates can go up to a dozen meteors an hour for observers in the Southern Hemisphere. And people worldwide should keep their eyes peeled for a few larger, brighter meteors known as fireballs.
Mid-August will be the best time in the entire year to catch sight of tiny Mercury, the most elusive of all planets visible to the unaided eye. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun, and so from Earth’s perspective, it often stays low along the horizon and can be obscured by the glare of the rising or setting sun.
On August 9, look for the planet in the east about 30 minutes before your local sunrise, sweeping the area with binoculars first to pinpoint Mercury’s exact location. The faint planet will be about 10 degrees above the horizon, equal to the height of your fist held at arm’s length, and it will appear as a distinct star-like object sandwiched between the star Procyon to its lower right and the twin stars Castor and Pollux to the upper right.
Look for the waxing gibbous moon to form an eye-catching conjunction with brilliant Jupiter on August 9. The cosmic duo will dominate the overnight hours as they glide across the southern sky. Look carefully toward their lower right, and you’ll also spot the large orange star Antares, part of the constellation Scorpius.
As darkness falls on the 11th, the nearly full moon will park itself next to the golden star-like object that is the ringed planet Saturn. The two bodies will make for a striking pair nestled within the constellation Sagittarius. As an observing challenge, see if you can spot the distinct blue star called Nunki hanging below the moon. Saturn, the moon, and the star will form a neat triangle, while the color contrast between Saturn and 228-light-year-distant star will be especially noteworthy.
Known for producing up to 60 meteors an hour, this beloved annual sky show will be at its best on the 13th. But with the full moon only a couple of days away from the peak, views of this year’s Perseids will be hindered by lunar glare. Expectations are that the performance will be quite muted, with only about dozen meteors an hour visible under dark skies.
However, it will still be worth watching for shooting stars, since the Perseids are also known to produce especially bright fireballs. The best times to go outside will be in the last couple hours before your local dawn, when the shower reaches its peak activity. Meteors will appear to radiate from the shower’s namesake constellation, Perseus.
On this day, Venus will be directly behind the sun as seen from Earth, putting it in what astronomers call superior conjunction. From this point onward, the planet will seem to move away from the solar disk, slowly climbing higher in our skies and out of the glare of the sun. As such, Venus will become visible as the “evening star” by the end of September.
Try catching this minor meteor shower radiating from the constellation Cygnus when it peaks on the 17th. While you may only see under half a dozen shooting stars an hour, the radiant point will be nearly overhead for most sky-watchers across the Northern Hemisphere, making the show easy to observe from just about any location.
For a great observing challenge, try hunting down the razor-thin crescent moon as it has a close encounter with the Beehive star cluster, a swarm of stars roughly 610 light-years away. Both objects will be visible through binoculars very low in the eastern horizon about an hour to 30 minutes before local sunrise.
Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, is the author of Star Trek: The Official Guide to Our Universe and the second edition of The Backyard Guide to the Night Sky. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.