As one month gives way to another, planets, stars and meteors light up the night sky this week.
Moon and the Seven Sisters. Near local midnight on Monday, August 26, then again the following night, watch the low eastern horizon for a rising moon parked near the famous Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus, the bull. The moon will be to the far right of the 400 light year distant cluster. By the next day it will have dropped 6 degrees below Pleiades, equal to about a fist width at arm’s length.
Neptune Prime Time. Also late Monday the eighth and last major planet in our solar system reaches opposition; Neptune will be exactly opposite from the sun in our skies. For sky watchers, that means this icy blue giant is at its brightest. At magnitude 7.8 a good pair of binoculars or better yet a small telescope will show off the bluish-green tinge of this distant planet’s tiny disk amongst the star of the constellation Aquarius. Finders’ chart for Neptune.
Moon and Bull’s Eye. Look high in the southeast before dawn on Wednesday, August 28 for the last quarter moon pairing with the bright orange star Aldebaran. Marking the eye of Taurus, the bull, Aldebaran sits 65 light years from Earth and is a red giant star that’s over 40 times larger than our sun.
The moon will appear strikingly close to Aldebaran–only 3 degrees apart, equal to 6 full moon disks.
Jupiter joins the moon. Look nearly halfway up the eastern sky in the predawn hours of Saturday, August 31 for Jupiter left of the waning crescent moon. The gas giant now appears as the brightest star-like object in the entire eastern sky. The cosmic pair will appear less than 5 degrees apart, about the width of your three middle fingers at arm’s length. It’s a pretty pairing for the naked eye or binoculars.
Jupiter itself is quite a sight through even the smallest telescope, with its large disk painted with two parallel, brown colored cloud bands. Meanwhile on either side of the planet are its four largest moons, easily visible as points of light.
Aurigid Shower Peaks. Before dawn on Sunday, September 1, the minor Aurigid meteor shower is set to peak. On average this annual meteor shower produces no more than 50 to 10 shooting stars per hour but on the rare occasions it can flare up to dozens per hour. In 2007, observers in western North America reported seeing 130 meteors per hour fall at peak time- many of them unusually bright.
As their name implies, the Aurigids appear to radiate out from the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer, which rises after local midnight in the northeast this time of the year. And with a nearly moonless night, sky conditions should be near ideal for whatever surprises may be in store
Planetary Triangle. After watching the Aurigids, at dawn Sunday look for Jupiter and Mars to form a flattering triangular pattern with the waning crescent moon in between. The sky show is best seen about 30 minutes before sunrise low in the eastern sky.