STARGAZING IN ZION IN AUGUST
Summer is a great month for stargazing. Warm nights, the Milky Way arcing across the celestial sphere with many naked eye, binocular and telescopic objects, and camping in remote areas. Plus, with every passing day it gets darker just a little earlier as we march towards the Autumnal Equinox. However, the desert climate of Southern Utah provides monsoon thunderstorms late July and early August. Not great for stargazing but we badly need the rain. Close to 40% of the rainfall occurs during the monsoon season here.
The Perseids Meteor shower peaks around August 12th but unfortunately it happens at Full Moon, so we’ll be only to see the brightest meteor. But always look out for meteors streaking through the sky before or after the peak.
Night Sky around Midnight on August 15th. Source: Stellarium
The heroes of the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda continue to rise on the Northeast, and we will have some neato things to observe including our neighbor galaxy, Andromeda. The sky is full of love stories but also some fights about apples, animals lying to gods about their tasks, and of course hybris: “I am the greatest/prettiest/fastest…”
The planets are back in the evening sky with Saturn getting the most Ohhhs and Ahhhs. The ring system of the God of Agriculture is made up of billions of icy, rocky grains and pebbles even though some are as big as houses. As they bump against each other, heat from friction melts the ice and being in the cold environment they refreeze and the new coating reflects the sunlight really well and make the rings shine! The ring system with several divisions and gaps span roughly from Earth to almost the Moon but it is only 10 meters (30 feet thick). Imagine a giant razor blade!
Saturn will look like this through a telescope. Source: BBC
In its 30-year orbit around the Sun and given a rotational axis tilt of 26 degrees (just like Earth this planet experiences seasons), the rings appear in a different angle throughout time. Currently, we are in an opportune time to see the rings at a nice angel but in 3 years it will be just a line. The light that we see from Saturn takes about 80 minutes to get to Earth and we fit about 9 times into the second largest planet. Known since ancient times as a naked eye planet, we have orbited Saturn with the Cassini Mission which had a probe attached to it called Huygens that landed on Saturn’s largest moon Titan. It discovered lakes of methane! Maybe there is microbial life lurking somewhere on the shores. We can see Titan through our telescope! Saturn has 83 moons total, and we continue to discover more. Just don’t expect to see a “wormhole” appear all the sudden as happened in the movie Interstellar.
Saturn’s ring system throughout time. Source: Wikipedia Commons
We also get to see Jupiter and the four Galilean moons. Planets and rings and moons galore await us from now through the rest of the year.
The Eyes to the Universe
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has delivered the first images and they are spectacular! A Deep Field with thousands of galaxies and an Einstein Ring (a gravitational lensing effect), galaxies merging, a planetary nebula, and a star forming region called the Carina Nebula aka Cosmic Cliffs! IF you look up at the great cliffs of Zion National Park against the blue sky, they look very similar!
Carina Nebula aka “Cosmic Cliffs” Source: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Looking at the cliffs of Zion Canyon with Angels Landing to the left.
Check out the Webb gallery of images here: https://webbtelescope.org/news/first-images/gallery
Astronomical Dates and Times:
First Quarter: August 5
Full Moon: August 11 (Sturgeon Moon – Supermoon)
Last Quarter: August 18
New Moon: August 27
Astro Twilight End August 1st (Virgin, UT): 10:23 PM
Astro Twilight End August 15th: 10:01 PM
Astro Twilight End August 31st: 9:34 PM
Perseids Meteor Shower: Aug 12-13 (Peak)