Warm summer nights seem like they're tailor-made for backyard astronomers. Evenings throughout August are great opportunities to get the whole family outside for summer stargazing fun with a telescope or your favorite pair of binoculars.
The Summer Milky Way
In early August, when the Moon is far from full, 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 to scan the galaxy and tease out dozens of star clusters, nebulas and planetary nebulas. You can also use any telescope to zoom in on interesting objects for a closer look. 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.
Say "See You Later" to Saturn
August will be the last month of the year for good views of Saturn through a telescope. At the beginning of the month, Saturn will be well above the southern horizon as the sky gets dark. Look for Saturn northeast of bright star Antares and just south of constellation Ophiuchus. Saturn is usually easy to spot as a bright yellowish disc of light in the sky, especially since it does not "twinkle" as much as the stars that surround it. Don't forget a high-power eyepiece for the best views of the gas giant planet and its stunning rings! On August 2nd, the waxing gibbous Moon will be close to Saturn throughout the night, making a pretty pair in the night sky. By mid-month, Saturn will sink below the southwestern horizon by about 1:00am.
Perseids Meteor Shower
One of the most popular meteor showers of the year, the Perseids, peaks this year on the night of August 12th. Find a comfortable spot outside just after dark for the best chance to see meteors appearing to radiate from the constellation Perseus in the northeast. Light from the waning gibbous Moon may outshine some of the fainter meteors this year, but it's worth the challenge to see bright meteors streak across the sky. As many as 80 meteors per hour can usually be seen during the shower's peak.
Total Solar Eclipse
Don't miss the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a Total Solar Eclipse on August 21st. To see the Moon completely block the Sun and reveal the delicate appearance of the Sun's outer corona, you'll need to be along the path of totality, which will stretch across the contiguous United States from Oregon to South Carolina. Outside the path of totality, a partial eclipse will be visible for most of North America. If you're lucky enough to live along the path of totality, or if you take a summer road trip to see this spectacle, you'll experience a celestial phenomenon that has thrilled earthlings since ancient times. For more information on the August 21st Total Solar Eclipse, and to find Orion gear for safe observation of this rare event, visit the Solar Eclipse 2017 page in the Orion Community Center.
Host an August Star Party
The fun doesn't stop after the Total Solar Eclipse! Take advantage of dark skies courtesy of the New Moon on August 21st and invite friends and family outside for a summertime star party. Without the Moon's glare, it will be easier to enjoy great views of fainter deep-sky delicacies like nebulas, star clusters and galaxies. Use a pair of big binoculars with 50mm or larger objective lenses or use any telescope to take a summertime tour of the cosmos.
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 Eagle Nebula, M17 the Swan Nebula, M20 the Trifid Nebula and the very bright M8, 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 combat light pollution with a broadband SkyGlow filter to see these nebulas 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
Our challenge this month is a surprisingly easy object to see with a telescope, but not so easy with binoculars. Look for M27, the Dumbbell Nebula in the constellation of Vulpecula, just south of Cygnus. M27 is one of the nearest and brightest planetary nebulas visible from Earth. It's so big that it can be spotted in humble 7x50 binoculars, but it does present a challenge! 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 50mm or larger binoculars
All objects described above can be easily 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.