What to see in the August 2022 night sky
Welcome to the August night sky! We’re fast approaching the return of fall and cooler evening temperatures, so if you haven’t yet pulled a blanket outside and taken the time to look up, this is the month to tick that box. .
And August aims to deliver. We have overlapping meteor showers, a bright planet in opposition, a final hoorah from a comet that won’t pass this way again for several million years, and peak beauty from the Milky Way. I wish you clear skies!
Early August dark skies offer the best shooting star conditions (August 1-5)
The late July new moon (July 28) will usher in unusually dark skies for early August. While I usually take this opportunity to highlight a cool galaxy or nebula to explore in these ideal conditions, I’m going to recommend grabbing a blanket, bug spray, and trying to catch shooting stars instead.
The reason? The August full moon, which rises on the 11th, will spoil all but the brightest shooting stars at the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. You’ll likely have more success catching the Perseids early (the shower actually starts in mid-July), which will also overlap with the Delta Aquarids meteor shower in late July.
These showers are often best just before dawn, so set your alarm clock (and your coffee maker) early and enjoy those moonless evenings while they last!
Rare Oort Cloud Comet Shines Brightest (August 4)
After passing through Earth on its maiden voyage into the inner solar system, comet C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS) is expected to peak on the evening of August 4. Scientists believe the comet originated from the Oort Cloud, a spherical traffic jam of ice bodies in interstellar space. The Oort cloud is so vast from our sun that C/2017 K2 is estimated to have been traveling towards us for millions of years.
On August 4, with PANSTARRS positioned to perfectly capture some of the sun’s rays, it is estimated that comet will reach a luminosity of magnitude 9. It’s still not good enough for the naked eye (which usually requires a minimum of 6 mag with dark skies), but you should be able to spot it well using a small telescope or binoculars. As shown in the sky map above, reflecting placement on August 4 at around 9 p.m. EST, gaze just above the constellation Scorpius to admire the wonder of this chilling, distant visitor.
Look deep into the galactic center of the Milky Way (all month)
August is peak Milky Way season in northern latitudes, providing not only comfortable temperatures for gazing at our galaxy’s shimmering core, but also excellent positioning in the night sky.
According to Forbes, the “Milky Way window” is where the sky is free of moonlight, so between the last quarter moon and a few days after the new moon. In mid-August, the Milky Way will be visible at 10:00 p.m. and will be directly overhead at midnight — perfect dark sky conditions for this hazy band of stars to appear.
Our dusty galactic core, visible only during the summer months, is located in the constellation Sagittarius. It lies about 26,000 light-years from Earth and contains a supermassive black hole about four million times the size of our sun. It is surrounded by 10 million stars, mostly made up of old red giants. The bands that emanate from the core (the Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy) are estimated to contain an additional 100 to 400 billion stars.
Perseid meteor shower (August 12-13)
Considered one of the best celestial events of the year, the Perseid meteor shower occurs from July 17 to August 24 and peaks on the evening of August 12. The rain, sometimes creating as many as 60 to 200 shooting stars per hour, is produced when Earth passes through debris left behind by comet Swift-Tuttle’s orbit.
This 16-mile-wide periodic comet, which completes an orbit around the sun every 133 years, has been described as “the most dangerous object known to mankind”. Indeed, each time it returns to the inner solar system, it gets closer and closer to the Earth-Moon system. Although astronomers believe the comet poses no threat for at least the next 2,000 years, future impacts cannot be ruled out.
If the comet were to hit Earth, scientists believe Swift-Tuttle would be at least 300 times more powerful than the asteroid or comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. For now, you can admire the beauty of the wreckage of this harbinger looking north to the constellation of Perseus. Unfortunately, a full moon coinciding with the peak of the Perseids is likely to wipe out all but the brightest shooting stars.
Catch the Full Sturgeon Super Moon (August 11)
The August full moon, dubbed Sturgeon Moon, will peak over the east coast of the United States on the evening of August 11 at 9:36 p.m.
The Sturgeon Moon takes its name from the species of fish native to Europe and the Americas that is easily caught at this time of year. Other nicknames include Corn Moon, Fruit Moon, and Grain Moon. In countries that experience winter, such as New Zealand, the native Maori called this full moon “Here-turi-kōkā” or “the burning effect of fire is seen on the knees of man”. This reference is to the warm fires that shine during the coldest month in the southern hemisphere.
The August full moon is also the last of the 2022 supermoons — a nickname for when a full moon reaches 90% perigee, its closest approach to Earth. Supermoons appear about 30% brighter and 14% larger than the moon at its farthest point (called apogee), so take a moment to look up and enjoy this summer lunar light show!
Saturn Reaches Opposition and Shines Bright (August 14)
On August 14, Saturn will be closest and brightest to Earth for the year. Called opposition, this annual celestial phenomenon occurs when Earth’s faster orbit places it directly between a planet and the sun. Even better, you’ll be able to spot Saturn all night long as it rises just after sunset in the east and sets in the west just after sunrise. To find it, first look for Jupiter (which at this time of year is the brightest object in the evening sky). Saturn will be to the right and slightly higher in the sky. The sky map above reflects placement around midnight EST in the southeastern sky on August 14.
As the opposition brings Saturn closer to Earth, it is still 746 million kilometers away (compared to the 38 million kilometers that divided Earth and Mars when they last opposed in 2020). Nevertheless, Saturn is so large (about 764 Earths could fit on it) that you should be able to get an idea of its rings with just a pair of binoculars. A small telescope will help bring out the detail and may even give you a glimpse of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and, at 3,200 miles in diameter, larger than the planet Mercury!
The moonlight spoils the spectacle of August 14? Don’t worry, Saturn will maintain its oppositional glow throughout the month.
Say hello to the last remaining protoplanet in our solar system (August 22)
The asteroid Vesta, home to a 22 km high mountain and the largest in our solar system, will be in opposition and brightly lit by the sun on the morning of August 22. This 326-mile-wide object of beauty (with a surface reflectivity of 43% compared to 12%) of our own moon resides in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.
The sky map above shows Vesta’s placement in the night sky around 2 a.m. EST on August 22. A waning and late rising crescent moon will keep the sky relatively dark, giving you a decent window to try and see the solar system. only remaining protoplanet.
Seek the Earth’s Shadow (all year)
Have you ever wondered what causes the beautiful bands of color in the eastern sky at sunset or in the western sky at sunrise? The dark blue band that stretches 180 degrees along the horizon is actually Earth’s shadow emanating from some 870,000 miles into space. The golden-red part, dubbed the “belt of Venus,” is Earth’s upper atmosphere illuminated by the setting or rising sun.
Now that you know about this phenomenon, choose a night or a morning to try to spot it. You’ll need a fairly clear western or eastern horizon to get a clear view of our planet’s huge curved shadow.