Aug 04

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – August, 2019

Traditional Sights and a Brand New Spacecraft

For both beginner and veteran observers, August has much to offer. The sky becomes dark earlier, great constellations can easily be found and the evening sky contains two bright planets. What’s not to like?

Start the month with some lunar observing. You will find the crescent Moon near the western horizon tonight after sunset. Each night this week its position in the sky will shift toward the south and east, where it will pass close to the planets Jupiter and Saturn.

Next Friday, August 9, you will find the Moon right next to the bright planet, Jupiter, low in the southern sky. You should have little trouble identifying the planet as it is by far the brightest object in the night sky, after the Moon. Two nights later, on Sunday, August 11, the Moon will be in the southeast close to the planet Saturn. It will help to observe on both nights because on the 11th, Saturn may be lost in the glare of the nearby Moon, depending on atmospheric conditions, and it may help to know where to look.

While you are observing these events you may also want to check out two of the most well-known constellations, Scorpius and Sagittarius. The former is notable for the bright, red giant star, Antares, which can be spotted just down and to the right of the Moon and Jupiter on the 9th. The latter might be better known as the Teapot, the name of the asterism clearly visible near the southern horizon.

Both constellations contain many excellent possibilities for observing. If you are under a clear, dark sky, you will see the Milky Way appear to rise out of the spout of the teapot. This is an excellent target to scan with binoculars as the galaxies, star clusters, gas clouds, and other nebulae are numerous. The scorpion, too, is home to numerous deep sky objects so the whole area can be enjoyed with a telescope, binoculars, or simply with the naked eye.

With all the attention lately on the historic 50th anniversary of the Moon landing, many readers might have missed the news of another historic spacecraft that was launched last month. Known as LightSail 2, this spacecraft was designed, developed, and deployed by the Planetary Society (www.planetary.org). Once in Earth orbit, it unfurled a silver solar sail about the size of a boxing ring, which then used the pressure of the sunlight to propel itself along.

According to Planetary Society chief scientist Bruce Betts. “. . . (we wanted) to demonstrate controlled solar sailing . . . by changing the spacecraft’s orbit using only the light pressure of the Sun, something that’s never been done before”. LightSail 2 is the first spacecraft to use “solar sailing” for propulsion in Earth orbit. Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye describes the mission as “. . . a game-changer for spaceflight and advancing space exploration.

Just like the Moon landing, this mission might pave the way for an entirely new way to explore what’s up in the sky.

This month in history:
August 2: First televised liftoff of lunar module – Apollo 15’s “Falcon” – 1971
August 6: Curiosity rover lands on Mars – 2012
August 12: Echo 1 satellite launched – 1960
August 12: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter launched – 2005
August 18: Helium discovered in the Sun – 1868
August 25: Voyager 2 flies past Neptune – 1989
August 28: Galileo spacecraft flies past asteroid Ida – 1993