Gateway to the Stars August 2016: Dance planets, dance!

Nick Jarvis

The sky has some lovely treats for us in August!

We’re eagerly anticipating the return of the yearly Perseid meteor shower, which regularly occurs in mid-August. The Perseids is one of the best meteor showers of the year, and it will normally produce 50-100 meteors per hour at its peak, which is expected to be the early morning of August 12th; however, it’s possible that this year’s Perseids could be even better!

As the Earth flies through the flecks of ice and rock left behind by comet 109/P Swift-Tuttle, we’re predicted to pass close to one particular (no pun intended) debris stream that has produced dramatic outbursts in past years. Additionally, the gravitational nudges of Jupiter are predicted to send even more meteors our way. The upshot is that this year the Perseids could be much stronger than normal, so this one is definitely worth watching! And just to sweeten the deal even more, the Moon, which can sometimes interfere with the view, will be in a waxing gibbous phase and should be nicely out of the way during the peak meteor-watching hours (i.e. after midnight).

Speaking of dancing planets, we’ll be treated to a couple of lovely planetary conjunctions this month as well, where two planets will appear close together in the sky.​

Off in the southwestern sky, Mars and Saturn have been dancing around each other since earlier in the spring. As Mars finishes its retrograde “pirouette,” it will scoot off to the east over the coming weeks and months. As it does so, it will pass just to the south of Saturn, coming within 5 degrees around August 22-24. This will be visible in the early evening hours, low to the southwest.

Also in August, Venus will return to claim its place as the “evening star.” For the last several months, Venus has been over on the opposite side of the Sun. As it swings around in its orbit, it will start to poke out into the evening sky where it will be briefly visible low in the west during evening twilight. And as Venus comes back around, it will appear to pass by the planet Jupiter, which is also low in the west.​ This conjunction will be especially amazing because they will pass within seven arc-minutes of one another on August 27th! For comparison, the size of the Moon in the sky is about 30 arc-minutes, or about half of a degree. So we’re going to have the brightest planets in the sky sitting almost right on top of one another! In fact, with a telescope, you should be able to easily see both planets at once in the same view!​ Unfortunately, both planets will set about an hour after the Sun goes down, so we’ll only have a few minutes during twilight to see this amazing sight.

Click for larger version.

Simulated telescope view of Venus and Jupiter on the night of their close approach. Click for larger version.

In Gateway to the Stars​, we’ll use our high-resolution digital theater to simulate the appearance of these rare and fascinating events. We’ll also explore their astronomical causes and visualize them from perspectives that can’t be seen from Earth, all so that you can get the most out of the real thing when it happens.

Gateway to the Stars​ is hosted by Nick Jarvis on Saturday, August 6th at 6:45pm in the Hansen Dome Theater. Tickets are $2, or free for planetarium members. Buy tickets here, or at the Clark Planetarium ticket desk.​

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