Welcome to August, a month defined by loud cicadas, pool parties, humidity and children fretting about the impending return to school. When it comes to celestial happenings, however, there's a decent list of distractions to pull you away from the fray and into the quiet beauty of gazing at the heavens. From a partial solar eclipse to a moonless evening of shooting stars, August is one of the best summer months for hitting the backyard after sundown.
Wishing you clear skies!
New moon (Aug. 1 and 30)
August's new moon will leave the heavens to glow unimpeded by night. (Photo: Coconino National Forest [CC0 1.0]/Flickr)
August's two new moons will give way to dark skies for several nights. These are the perfect opportunities to grab a blanket and head outside into the still-warm summer evenings to enjoy the heavens in all their glory. With some remnants of the Perseids still visible, the Aug. 1 new moon will offer a chance to catch some of the faintest shooting stars.
Jupiter gets close to the moon (Aug. 9)
Jupiter with the Galilean moons are visible under a full moon on April 10, 2017. (Photo: Bautsch [CC0 1.0]/Wikimedia Commons)
On Aug. 9, Jupiter will be visible in the night sky less than 3 degrees from the moon. The pair will be visible to the naked eye, or you can use binoculars. But they may be too far apart for a telescope to capture them together. You'll find both near the constellation Ophiuchus.
Perseid meteor shower (Aug. 12, 13)
In this 30-second exposure, a meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid meteor shower in August 2015 in West Virginia. (Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
Regarded as one of the best celestial light shows of the year, the Perseid meteor shower occurs from July 17 to Aug. 24 and peaks on the evening of Aug. 12.
The shower, sometimes creating as many as 60 to 200 shooting stars per hour, is produced as Earth passes through debris left over from the orbit of Comet Swift-Tuttle. This 16-mile-wide periodic comet, which completes an orbit around the sun every 133 years, has been described as "the single most dangerous object known to humanity." This is because every instance of its return to the inner solar system brings it ever closer to the Earth-moon system. Though astronomers believe the comet bears no threat for at least the next 2,000 years, future impacts cannot be ruled out.
If the comet were to hit Earth, scientists believe Swift-Tuttle would be at least 27 times more powerful than the asteroid or comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. For now, you can take in the beauty of the debris from this harbinger of doom by looking north towards the constellation Perseus. Because the moon will be absent in the night sky, there's decent hype that this year's shower could be one to remember.
The rise of the full Sturgeon Moon (Aug. 15)
The full Sturgeon Moon is so-named for the fish that are easily caught in August and early September. (Photo: Paul Kline [CC By-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
August's full moon, nicknamed the Sturgeon Moon, will peak for the U.S. Eastern Seaboard on the morning of Aug. 15 at 8:30 a.m.
The Sturgeon Moon gets its name from the species of fish native to both Europe and the Americas that's easily caught this time of year. Other nicknames include the Corn Moon, Fruit Moon and Grain Moon. In countries experiencing winter, such as New Zealand, native Māori called this full moon "Here-turi-kōkā" or "the scorching effect of fire is seen on the knees of man." This reference is to warm fires that glow during the Southern Hemisphere's coldest month.
Look for Earth's shadow (All year)
The Earth's shadow and 'Belt of Venus' as captured above Mauna Kea, Hawaii. (Photo: Jay El Eskay [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]/Flickr)
Ever wonder what causes the beautiful bands of color in the eastern sky at sunset or the western sky at sunrise? The dark blue band stretching 180 degrees along the horizon is actually the Earth's shadow emanating some 870,000 miles into space. The golden-red portion, nicknamed the "Belt of Venus," is Earth's upper-atmosphere illuminated by the setting or rising sun.
Now that you know about this phenomenon, choose a night or morning sometime to try and pick it out. You'll need a western or eastern horizon that's fairly unobstructed to get a clear view of our planet's huge curved shadow.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published in August 2017.