Comfortable August nights seem to be made for backyard astronomers. Clear August evenings are ideal opportunities to get the whole family outside for a night of stargazing fun exploring the heavens with your telescope or astronomy binoculars.
Here are some of our top suggestions for August stargazing:
The Perseid Meteor Shower - One of the best meteor showers of the year, the Perseids peaks after midnight the night of August 11-12, and this year the Moon is in a favorable position to NOT interfere with your meteor viewing! Get some lawn chairs, a clear view of the sky and gather your friends & family for a night of stargazing punctuated by beautiful fleeting meteors!
The Summer Milky Way - As soon as it gets dark on the evening of August 6th, when the Moon isn't visible during the New Moon phase, you can see the grandest unaided-eye sight in the night sky from a dark sky location - our home galaxy, the Milky Way. Use binoculars and telescopes to scan and tease out dozens of star clusters, nebulas and planetary nebulas. From a dark sky location, away from city lights, the Milky Way is easy to see and majestic in scale, but you can't see it near heavily populated areas due to light pollution; so plan a summer adventure to a national park or your favorite dark sky site to experience this "must-see" astronomical sight.
Venus in the Evening Sky - Shining with astounding brightness throughout August is Venus, our next-door neighbor planet. To find Venus, get a clear view to the west about 45 minutes after sunset - it will be the brightest thing in the sky, except for the Moon! For an interesting sight, take a look at Venus through a telescope to see its partially illuminated "phase". During the evening of August 9 the Moon will sweep only 5 degrees south of Venus.
Saying "good bye" to Saturn - August will be the last month this year to get a really good view of ringed Saturn through a telescope. At the start of the month, Saturn is in the eastern end of the constellation Virgo and still a reasonable distance above the horizon as the sky gets dark, so the "seeing " should be acceptable for good telescopic views. By the end of August, it will be only about 10 degrees above the horizon at twilight's end.
Morning Sky Conjunctions - During August, get outside before sunrise and look in the eastern sky to witness a grand gathering of planets - Mercury, Mars and Jupiter! On August 3, the thin crescent Moon adds its presence to this conjunction and passes 7 degrees south of Jupiter; on August 4th the Moon will be 5 degrees south of Mars and on the 5th, 5 degrees south of Mercury.
Grand Summer Nebulas - These excellent examples of gaseous nebulas are well placed for viewing in August - See the star chart in Orion's online Community section to find out where you can track them down. The brightest are M16 the Star Queen Nebula, M17 the Swan Nebula, M20 the Trifid Nebula and the very bright M8, the Lagoon Nebula. All are visible in binoculars from dark locations with good seeing. Use a small to moderate aperture telescope with the aid of an Oxygen-III eyepiece filter or SkyGlow filter to see them from more suburban locations.
Summertime Star Clusters - Even from the city, you can track down some of the brightest star clusters of the summer sky in August. The brightest and best include M13, M93, M11, M6 and M7. You can see these under good skies with a humble 60mm scope, but it will take something larger like a StarBlast 4.5 or a 6" to 8" Dobsonian reflector to reveal their true beauty.
August's Challenge Object - This month, our challenge is actually a very easy object to see with a telescope, but not so easy with binoculars! Well suited for observing this month is M27, the Dumbbell Nebula in the constellation of Vulpecula, just south of Cygnus, the Swan or Northern Cross. M27 is one of the nearest and therefore one of the brightest and largest planetary nebulas visible from Earth. It's so big that it can be spotted in 7x50 binoculars! Try to track M27 down this August with your binoculars, it will be a small dot, slightly larger than the surrounding stars, but definitely visible through binoculars. What's the smallest binocular you can see it with?
All objects described above can easily be seen with the suggested equipment from a dark sky site, a viewing location some distance away from city lights where light pollution and when bright moonlight does not overpower the stars. All objects have been verified by actual observations by Orion Telescopes & Binoculars Staff at Fremont Peak State Park, and/or Deep Sky Ranch, 60 miles and 90 miles respectively from San Jose International Airport, San Jose, CA.