August 1, 2016
The Night Sky:
An exceptional year for the Perseids meteor shower?


The Perseids meteor shower  is visible from July 17 to Aug. 24 but will peak between Aug. 9 and 14.  The Perseids are renowned for producing up to 60 meteors per hour, but some experts think this might be an exceptional year for the Perseids, with meteor rates as high as 120 per hour.

They are best viewed after midnight.  The shooting stars can appear anywhere in the sky, but these meteors will appear to come from the constellation Perseus, which will rise in the northeast just after 10 p.m. on Aug. 9.

August will begin with Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury visible in the evening skies.

Look for Mercury and Venus near the western horizon just after sunset -- about 8:05 p.m. on Aug. 1.  Venus is the brighter of the two and will be a little closer to the horizon. Mercury will be a little higher and further south -- to your left.  

Don’t confuse Mercury with the fainter star, Regulus. Regulus is the 21st brightest star in the night skies.  It’s the brightest star in the constellation Leo and has been called the “Heart of the Lion.”  On Aug. 1, Regulus will appear between Venus and Mercury.  The three will appear to form a line that points up to Jupiter.

If you haven’t taken the time to view Jupiter this year, now’s your last chance until October.  It will get closer to the horizon every evening.  By the end of August, Jupiter will not be visible in the evening skies.   

The prominent triangle formed by Mars, Saturn, and Antares will be due south at dusk on Aug. 1. Mars will be on the western side of the meridian and Saturn and Antares on the eastern side. The meridian is the great imaginary line that extends from the north pole to the south pole and splits the sky in half.

Neptune will rise in the east at about 9:30 p.m., followed by Uranus at 11:20 p.m.  These two planets are almost identical in size, but Neptune is 2.7 billion miles away from us while Uranus is a mere 1.9 billion miles away.  The change in distance has a profound effect on how bright the two planets appear.   

Neptune has a visual magnitude of +7.9, making it invisible to the unaided eye.  But you can view it through a good pair of binoculars. It will appear to be a very bright star.  Uranus on the other hand has a visual magnitude of +5.9.  That means on a very clear dark night, you might be able to see it with your unaided eye. If you decide to do this, you can increase your odds by picking a location as far away from the village lights on Hatteras and Ocracoke as possible.  


July offered several good nights for astrophotography.  The southern part of the skies offered views of several nebulae, including M8, the Lagoon Nebula.

The Lagoon Nebula is about 4.3 thousand light years away.  Its visual magnitude is +6.  That makes it very difficult to see with the unaided eye.  M8 can be found with a pair of binoculars or a telescope in our southern skies throughout July.


New moon: August 2

First Quarter: August 10

Full moon: August 18

Last Quarter: August 24

(Gerry Lebing is a retired computer scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C.  He has visited Hatteras Island since the mid-1970s. He and his wife, Karen, have owned property here for several years and moved to their home in Waves full-time in 2013.  Astronomy is a subject that Gerry says he has always been interested in and one that he pursues seriously -- he's built an small observatory next to his house. You can send him questions about the night sky through e-mail, [email protected].)


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