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Welcome to the August edition of Eyes on the Night Sky, where we will select the most interesting astronomical features of the month. After the excitement of last month’s comet NEOWISE, July will be a tough act to follow but there are still wonderful sights to be discovered in the night sky as true darkness returns. 

Milky Way

Milky Way Core ©Sam Price

The Milky Way is awe inspiring to gaze at with the unaided eye in a dark, light pollution-free sky. Choose a moonless night and find a place away from man-made light pollution, such as the Elan Valley International Dark Sky Park, or an area outside of town. Look towards the south and you will see a cloud-like formation rising out from the horizon and over your head (an area of sky known as the zenith). This is one of the best times of year to see the Milky Way, as the galactic centre is visible towards midnight and true darkness returns.

At the same time, you can try and spot bright meteors zipping across the sky as we approach the most prolific meteor shower of the year: the Perseids.

Perseid Meteor Shower

Perseid Meteor Shower ©Takaaki Ito (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The peak of this meteor shower falls on the evening of 12th August and early morning of 13th August; the radiant emanating from the constellation of Perseus. The light of the last quarter phase of the moon might interfere with the visibility of the meteors but it doesn’t rise until the early hours, so you may have an hour or two of darkness to see up to 50 ‘shooting stars’ per hour.

Perseid sky map

The meteors are debris left over by comet 109P/ Swift-Tuttle that burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere as we move through space. If you are going out to see the Perseids, take plenty of warm clothing, hot drinks and food, as night can be colder than anticipated!

C/2020 F3 NEOWISE (The Comet)

C/2020 F3 NEOWISE ©Sam Price

There is still an opportunity to catch Comet NEOWISE as it travels away from the Sun into the outer reaches of the Solar System. By the beginning of August, the comet is predicted to fade below unaided eye visibility but can still be seen with a small telescope.

Look for it as it passes through the constellation of Coma Berenices at the start of the month. By the middle of the month, the comet sinks into the western horizon, passing under Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes.

This month’s Full Moon, which falls on 3rd August is also known as the Sturgeon Moon, as this particular species of fish appears in abundance at this time, which the ancient fishing tribes of North America sought. It is also known as the Grain Moon and even the Red Moon; the colour caused by the summer haze. The New Moon falls on 19th August, making that time of the month ideal for stargazing.


Constellation of the Month: Perseus

This month, we are featuring the constellation of Perseus. Known as the area of sky where the most famous meteor shower, the Perseids originate from, it also is a lovely area of sky, with a few interesting celestial targets to study.

The Double Cluster is a stunning open cluster of stars, resembling sparkling diamonds through a telescope and providing a fine sight in binoculars. It also can be seen with the unaided eye.

At about 11pm – midnight, look for the star Segin on the western side of the constellation of Cassiopeia and look for a faint ‘fuzzy’ at the four or five o’ clock position. Fix your eyes on the faint fuzzy and raise your binoculars to your eyes. You will be amazed at what you will see! The Double Cluster comprises two open clusters: NGC 869 and NGC 884. These stars are relatively young and there are more than 300 of these youthful blue-white super giants, especially compared to the stars in the Pleiades, which as estimated to be at least six times older!

In Greek Mythology, the constellation honours the hero Perseus, who bravely confronted the vile Gorgon Medusa, who turned anyone to stone if they stared at her eyes. Armed with a mirrored shield, gifted from Athena, he was able to find Medusa as the reflection of her face would not turn him into stone. Slaying her, he brought her head back to Athena who placed it on the shield. The powers of Medusa to turn people into stone still remained, and it became the most feared object of Greek Mythology. During that time, he came across the beautiful Andromeda, who was trapped in a rock and was about to be eaten by Cetus, a sea monster. Slaying the monster, he rescued Andromeda, later marrying her and together, they had nine children.