May 24, 2024

Supermoons, Saturn and shooting stars: Stargazing In August 2023

August might just be the best month of all for stargazing in the northern hemisphere. Unlike June and July, there is plenty of darkness, and with warm evenings, it’s possible to stay outside for hours. There are many reasons to do so, one of which is post sunset, views of the Milky Way arcing across the southern sky.

However, perhaps the most famous reason to stay out all night during August is the annual Perseid meteor shower. If you’ve never before made the effort to see the peak of this spectacular event, see below for details of exactly when and where to be to see up to 100 shooting stars per hour under ideal sky conditions.

Here’s what else to see in the night sky in August 2023—a month with not one, but two full moons:

1. Super Sturgeon Moon

When and where: Tuesday, August 1, rising in the east

Although the year’s second (and August’s first of two) so-called “supermoons” might in itself appear to be a major annual highlight, such occurrences aren’t particularly rare. Although this full moon will be closer to Earth—so technically bigger and brighter—the effect isn’t easily noticeable. August is nevertheless the perfect month to go out and see a fabulous moonrise, which you can do at moonrise where you are just a few minutes after sunset. Look east.

2. Perseid Meteor Shower

When and where: Pre-dawn hours of Sunday, August 13, all-sky

You’ve probably heard of the Perseid meteor shower, but have you ever seen it at its best? Mass media coverage of the event usually results in streams of people arriving at remote observatories and national parks at sunset, keen to see the advertised 100+ “shooting stars” per hour. Sadly, meteor showers do not work like that. Conditions this year for the peak of the Perseid meteor shower are perfect, with it occurring just a few nights before a New Moon. It peaks just after dark on Saturday, August 12, but will likely be best in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, August 13. The best advice is to find as dark a site as you possibly can—perhaps an International Dark Sky Place or a dark spot on a light pollution map—and sit in a lawn chair, lay on a blanket or find yourself a hot tub under the stars.

3. Summer Triangle

When and where: Any night this month, straight above

If there is one star pattern you ought to know about in the summer sky, it’s the Summer Triangle. A simple, but vast elongated triangle of just three very bright stars, it is overhead during August, and an easy way to orient yourself at night. The three constituent stars are Vega in Lyra, then Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila. That might seem complicated, but if you go outside after dark and look straight up, you’ll quickly see these three stars. The Summer Triangle is also a good signpost to the Milky Way since its flows between Deneb and Altair.

4. Summer Milky Way

When and where: Any night this month, in the south

Although it is possible to see the bright center of our galaxy from the northern hemisphere between April and September, it’s during August that people tend to notice it. That’s because August is a vacation month, with trips to national parks and wilderness areas revealing to people—often, for the first time—the arc of our galaxy across the night sky. With plenty of hours of darkness as sunset creeps earlier, look south after twilight has faded for the best views. You can see the Milky Way with just your naked eyes, though sweeping a pair of binoculars across our galaxy’s dense star fields is an unforgettable experience.

5. Super Blue Moon

When and where: Wednesday, August 30, rising in the east

No, it won’t be blue! The second full moon of August 2023 is the result of the moon taking just less than a calendar month to orbit the Earth. For two full moons to occur in the same month merely requires the first full moon to rise on the first or second day, which happened earlier this month. That leaves the second full moon without a name, hence the phrase “once in a blue moon.” As a bonus, this full moon is the biggest, brightest and best full moon of the entire year, so worth getting outside at moonrise where you are to see it appear on the eastern horizon.

6. Saturn at Opposition

When and where: Sunday, August 27 (rising in the east, setting in the west)

On one evening per year Earth gets between the Sun and Saturn—as it does all of the outer planets. It’s an important night for amateur astronomers, because only on that night, and for a few weeks either side, does Saturn appear 100% illuminated from our point of view. That makes the second half of August and the first half of September in 2023 is the best time to see Saturn and its biggest, brightest and best, though to get a sense of its ring pattern you will have to use (any) small telescope.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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