We often don’t think about the sky above us as a part of the ecosystem other than when weather is involved. But it is! People have used stars and other objects in the sky for thousands and thousands of years to help them navigate, tell time, know when to plant crops, and create folklore and art. In fact, many animals use the sky for travelling and telling time!
Of course, the sky is also home to our Moon, an important force in many aspects of life on Earth. The Sun is also a vital part of life, as it gives energy to the planet.
Learn with us, with help from Jeff Hutton, an avid astronomer and Berea community member, about the sky above us and how it connects to the ecosystem and ourselves.
Click HERE for astronomical activities Jeff has written and shared with us.
Cosmic Candy Store
Those of us with a passing interest in astronomy can usually name one annual meteor shower, the August Perseids. Let’s take a closer look at the terms I just used. Annual meteor showers occur at about the same time each year because there are traces left behind by comets, those ancient remnants left over from when our solar system was first formed four to five billion years ago. Think of these traces as being like the exhaust trails, or contrails, left behind by high altitude planes. As the Earth moves along its orbit, we are carried through these trails from time to time. I was reminded of this when we were treated to a visit by comet Neowise in July.
I took this picture of Comet Neowise on the morning of July 11th. See the glowing head of the comet? That’s actually sunlight reflecting off the dust produced when the sun heats the ice that makes up most of the comet’s head. Comets are mostly ice with some sandy material mixed in. That sandy material forms the “comet contrails” that create meteor showers in our upper atmosphere when the Earth sweeps through.
So why is this month’s meteor shower called the Perseids? As we are carried along with our planet, we travel along a nearly circular path as we orbit the sun. This is a BIG orbit and at any given time, we are heading towards a point in space for a few days that is a location of a certain constellation. On August 11-12, we will be heading for the area of space that appears to be occupied by the constellation Perseus. That’s also when we are hurtling through the “contrail” left behind by a comet called Swift-Tuttle. By the way, this comet is on a long trajectory that may eventually put it on a collision course with Earth, but not for a very long time .
If you and your family plan to view the Perseid Meteor Shower, scout out a site that will be as free of artificial light as possible and don’t stay up. Instead, set your alarm for 3:00 AM and enjoy the full splendor of this spectacle when the constellation Perseus is high in the morning sky. You can also enjoy the lovely sunrise! (As long as the weather cooperates.) As you can see below, the last quarter moon, which rises around midnight, will interfere with some of the dimmer meteors that night.
The time spent under a starry sky in the wee hours when the world around you is quiet is, well, magical!
August’s Four Principle Phases of the Moon
“Sweets” for the Eye
July and August are my favorite months for what we amateur astronomers call “faint fuzzies.” That’s because we get to peer into downtown Milky Way, similar to the way restaurants will appear as you approach a city on a long road trip. Go to a place away from human-made light pollution and look to the southern sky. I took this picture below from a western dark-sky site.
The teapot shaped constellation on the left is called Sagittarius and the big fishhook on the right is Scorpius. I’ve highlighted some of the bright “fuzzies” for you. As a challenge, print this page, grab a small telescope or binoculars, and find as many of these “sweets” as you can. If you like, you can go to a website like the Sea and Sky HERE to identify these Messier objects, designated with the letter ‘M.’ Charles Messier was an 18th century comet hunter in France who noted the location of about 100 “faint fuzzies” so he wouldn’t confuse them with a newly discovered comet.
Dance of the Planets
Continuing to dominate the southern sky in August are the two largest planets in our solar system, Jupiter and Saturn. They will be separated by a distance similar to the bowl of the Big Dipper. That’s about one hand-width held out at arm’s length. They are up together in the southeastern sky at dark. Both distant planets are about as close as they get in July and August. Not sure you see them? Here’s a trick! Most of the time, stars twinkle and planets don’t. To the naked eye, Jupiter’s color is the same as straw and Saturn appears a little dimmer and grayer. Not that you’ll need it because there are no bright stars nearby. Here’s a mid-August finder chart for Jupiter and Saturn.
The time is around 11:00 PM. The patch of sky in this chart includes the area in the previous picture. If you have good eyes and good binoculars, you might just be able to glimpse some of the bright moons of Jupiter. In order to see Saturn’s rings, you’ll need a telescope that can magnify at least 50 times, or 50x.
The planet Mars rises three hours after sunset in August. You might have noticed news reports of three separate spacecraft that are being sent to the red planet. That’s because the orbits of Mars and Earth are bringing the two planets almost as close together as we we ever get! That also means that Mars is growing brighter in the sky. Start looking for Mars around midnight in August!
For more detailed information, check out www.skyandtelescope.org .
For a printable PDF of this article, click HERE.