Comfortable August nights seem to be tailor-made for backyard astronomers. Warm evenings throughout August are great opportunities to get the whole family outside for summer stargazing fun with a telescope or a pair of binoculars.
Five Planets After Sunset — In early August, look above the horizon just east of where the Sun sets to catch a glimpse of five planets stretched across the sky all at once! From west to east, the planetary line-up will include Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. While an open view of the western horizon is required to see Mercury and Venus just above the horizon, Jupiter will be higher in the sky and easier to see. Follow the ecliptic path further east and upward in the sky to see our next-door neighbor planet Mars and ringed Saturn near bright star Antares.
Host an August Star Party — Take advantage of the New Moon on August 2nd and invite friends and family outside for a summertime star party! The dark skies provided by the New Moon will make it easier to enjoy great views of planets Saturn and Mars as well as fainter deep-sky delicacies like nebulas, star clusters and galaxies. Use a pair of big, 50mm or larger binoculars or a telescope and explore the dark skies together.
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.
The Perseid Meteor Shower — One of the most popular meteor showers of the year, the Perseids, peaks this year on the morning of August 12th. Get outside on the evening of the 11th, but plan to stay up after midnight for the best chance to see meteors appearing to radiate from the constellation Perseus. The bright gibbous Moon sets around 1 a.m. on the 12th, leaving several hours of dark skies before dawn. As many as 80 meteors per hour can usually be seen during the shower's peak, but experts are predicting possibly far more this year. Sky & Telescope says, "There's ... a chance that it could be spectacular." So grab some lawn chairs and gather your friends and family for a night of stargazing punctuated by — potentially hundreds of — beautiful meteors!
Say "See You Later" to Saturn and Mars — August will be the last month of the year to get a good view of Saturn through a telescope. At the beginning of the month, Saturn and Mars will both be well above the horizon in the south-southwest as the sky gets dark, so the "seeing" should be acceptable for good telescopic views. Don't forget a high-power eyepiece! By the end of the August, the planets will only be about 10 degrees above the horizon at twilight's end. On the 23rd and 24th at dusk, the two planets form a picturesque vertical alignment with the bright star Antares in the constellation Scorpius.
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 — 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. 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.
M27 - Dumbbell Nebula by Steve Peters
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.