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Sky Diary

The Sky at Night

In some ways, August and September are the best months to get out and look at the night sky. Nights are starting to become longer and darker but generally temperatures are pleasant and far removed from the freezing conditions often encountered during winter months. If you can find a dark place to view from it's well worth going out and taking in the sights of the summer sky. Let your eyes become adapted to the dark then look for the cross formed by Cygnus, the Swan, high overhead. If there is no Moon in the sky you should be able to see the Milky Way which passes through Cygnus. The Milky Way passes almost across the sky at this time of year, crossing Perseus towards the north-east, then through Cassiopeia, Cygnus and southwards through Aquila. You don't need binoculars to see the Milky Way, in fact it is best with the unaided eye but if you would like to try something a bit more difficult take your binoculars with you and have a look slightly above and to the left of the brightest star in Cygnus, Deneb. On a dark night you should see a faintly glowing area which is the North America Nebula, so named because its shape is remarkably similar to that of North America and is composed of hydrogen gas. If you manage to see it, you will be looking at an object which is 1,600 light years away.

August has arrived following what has been a warm summer with unusually clear skies. I'm sure we all hope this will continue for a time but especially for the annual firework display of the Perseid meteor shower. The Perseid shower is one of the best meteor showers of the year and, if skies are clear, are a joy to watch as the night air temperature is very civilised unlike during most of the winter meteor showers. It is specially recommended for viewing this year as the Moon, which often masks many fainter meteors, is only two days old at meteor maximum on the 13th August. Even better is the fact that calculations show the maximum to be at 1am on the 13th, so the best night to observe will be the 12/13th August. This peak sometimes falls during daylight and the best hours are lost, but for a few hours around maximum we might expect to see more than 80 meteors per hour this year. Try to find a dark place to observe from and look, without any optical aid, towards the darkest part of the sky. Wait and allow your eyes to become adapted to the darkness and you should see the fast streaks of light crossing the sky.

The Planets

  • Mercury will be low in the east after sunset from about the 23rd August, brightening until the end of the month. It should be easier to see after the 26th but will be dimmed by twilight.
  • Venus is still very bright but will become lower in the sky during August. Look for it after sunset low in the west if you have a good, low horizon.
  • Mars has passed its closest point to Earth and is still bright but will slowly become dimmer. Very low towards the south at around 11.30pm you should be able to identify it by its orange colour.
  • Jupiter can be found quite low in the south-west setting at around 10pm.
  • Saturn, like Mars and Jupiter, is low in the northern hemisphere sky and will appear like a moderately bright star in the south at around 10pm.
  • The Moon is at last quarter on the 4th, new on the 11th, first quarter on the 18th and full on the 26th August.
  • The New Moon on the 11th August brings a partial solar eclipse which is just visible in the most northerly parts of Scotland. Maximum will occur at around 9.45 BST but I wouldn't recommend a mass migration to Orkney or Shetland to see this eclipse as only 2% of the solar disc will be covered by the Moon.

Sky at Night Chart