August is synonymous with longer nights, abundant harvests and the end of summer vacation. For meteor lovers, it’s also time for the Perseids… but this year, the famous meteor shower won’t be making the history books. In compensation, the sky is preparing the most spectacular planetary show of the year.
Venus and Jupiter meet at dawn
The best conjunction of the year will occur starting in mid-August… But you’ll need to get up early to appreciate it!
Dazzling Venus is one of the two planets involved in this concurrence: It is currently visible at dawn and can be seen with ease, shining above the east-northeast horizon an hour before sunrise. For the past several weeks, Venus has been closing in on the Sun — a sure sign that its presence in the morning sky, which has lasted since the beginning of the year, is nearing an end. Fortunately for us, the planet is exceptionally bright: It easily penetrates the encroaching glare of daybreak and remains visible until just before the Sun appears.
Jupiter, the other protagonist is this affair, was directly behind the Sun on July 24. At the beginning of August, the giant planet is still too close to our daytime star to be seen against the brightening dawn sky. But as Jupiter gradually separates from the Sun, it finally becomes visible around August 8 or 9: Look for it just below Venus, above the east-northeast horizon about 5:00 A.M. — roughly 45 minutes before sunrise. A pair of binoculars will help you to spot Jupiter.
On the mornings that follow, things transpire rapidly. Note how Jupiter appears progressively higher in the sky, each day, as it approaches Venus. The two brightest planets continue to converge: On the morning of August 18, an hour before sunrise, they are separated by just one quarter of a degree! This is, without doubt, the most spectacular conjunction of the year. The only shortcoming is that it occurs only 18 degrees west of the Sun and is visible low on the horizon at dawn.
The following morning, the two planets separate once more: Jupiter pursues its climb and continues moving away from the Sun, while Venus plunges toward the glare of our Star. On the morning of August 23, a thin lunar crescent joins the two planets and provides a magnificent scene, set against the colours of dawn. To fully appreciate this sight, you’ll need a completely clear view of the east-northeast horizon.
Mars and Saturn meet at twilight
During the first days of the month, near the end of twilight, four objects of about equal brightness appear at about the same height above the horizon. The object on the left is the star Antares, in Scorpius, recognisable by its orange hue. About 25 degrees to its right, the planet Saturn shines creamy-white among the stars of Libra. To Saturn’s right, and slightly closer to the horizon, Mars displays an orange hue like Antares. And completely to the right, the bright star Spica, in Virgo, shines with a blue-white brilliance.
On August 1, at nightfall, the crescent moon will appear to the right of Spica; on the following evening, it will be between Spica and Mars. On the evening of August 3, the first quarter moon will be positioned to the left of Mars, near Saturn; on the 4th, the Moon will appear to Saturn’s left, and on the 5th it will be above Antares.
During the month of August, the position of these two planets will change before our eyes. Saturn, the farthest of the naked-eye planets, takes a long time to orbit the Sun — nearly 30 years to traverse the constellations of the zodiac before returning to its starting point. The ringed planet will remain within Libra’s boundaries until the end of next year.
Mars is much closer to the Sun and moves more quickly against the starry background. Currently in Virgo, the Red Planet crosses into Libra on August 10, and approaches Saturn: From August 21 to 28, Mars is located less than 4 degrees below the ringed planet. The gap between the two will be smallest on August 25.
On August 31, at twilight, the crescent moon will form a flattened triangle with Saturn to its right and Mars to its lower left: Take time to admire this splendid trio, low on the southwest horizon at twilight.
A dismal year for the Perseids
A brief word about the Perseids: The famous meteor shower is predicted to peak on August 12, around 8:00 P.M. EDT — barely two days after the full moon. During the evening and night of the 12th to 13th, and on the preceding and following nights, the Moon will inundate the sky with its whitish glare: Only the brightest (and least frequent) meteors will pierce the veil. One should expect to count fewer than ten Perseids an hour. Conditions will be much better in 2015, since the Perseid shower will take place during the new moon…