The monsoon clouds are anything but conducive to backyard astronomy, so observers have to be vigilant in watching for opportunities. We should all be waiting for a break in the clouds and our chance to catch one more look at the most surprising comet to have come along in quite some time.
Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE has considerably outperformed expectations. It became several magnitudes brighter than predicted, survived its perilous passage by the sun last month, and has remained bright throughout July. As I sit to write this, it is impossible to predict just how long this fine comet will remain impressive in binoculars. The comet made its closest approach to Earth on 22 July and is now outbound. It should be dimming pretty rapidly and will not return to the inner solar system for another 6,800 years. So, I hope you’ll take any opportunity you get to view it.
On Sunday, 2 August, the comet will be in the western sky at sunset, about 35 degrees above the horizon and about 10 degrees west of the bright star Arcturus. You can use the handle of the Big Dipper to locate that star – just extend the arc of the dipper’s handle to the first bright star you come to.
The comet reaches its maximum altitude of 37 degrees on 5 August, and after that will be a little lower each night. You’ll need binoculars to see the comet and its magnificent tail. It could remain bright and comet-like for a couple of weeks. However, it might also fade to nothingness pretty rapidly.
For meteor watchers, August means Perseids! What is typically the year’s best meteor shower occurs this month, peaking around the 12th. Unfortunately, we have not only the monsoon clouds to contend with, but also a third quarter moon that will interfere with the best meteor watching hours. Still, insomniacs and early risers can expect some meteors to grace the predawn hours of August 11 to 13.
Dominating any cloudless August nights will be the bright planets Jupiter and Saturn which are just past opposition and still at their best. Don’t miss any chance to point a telescope toward them.
The best attraction in the summer sky, however, is the Milky Way. On August evenings, an observer looking south will be able to see the bright band of light that delineates the plane of our home galaxy stretching from the horizon to the zenith high overhead. Prominent in that band are the stars that make up the teapot asterism of Sagittarius. The brightest part of the Milky Way looks very much like steam rising from the teapot’s spout.
Scanning along the summer Milky Way with binoculars is a remarkable experience. Your eyes are flooded with a myriad of stars and bright glowing patches of gaseous cloud called nebulae. Occasional clumps in the scattered background of stars are the star clusters and the overly dense regions that are termed “star clouds”. We see countless “open clusters” of stars which are relatively near-by groups of hundreds or even thousands of stars that are gravitationally bound to one another and moving through space with a common velocity.
Also scattered around the summer Milky Way are the jewel-like spheres of stars called “globular clusters.” These dense structures contain hundreds of thousands of stars and lie tens of thousands of light years from us. In your finder scope or binoculars, they will appear like a fuzzy star. In a telescope, they resolve into splashes of countless stars, so concentrated that their inner portions merge into a single glob of light.
The Milky Way is filled with enormous clouds of gas and dust that reveal themselves as either glowing patches of light or inky black voids that obscure the backdrop of stars. Some of these nebulae shine by the reflected light of stars buried within them. Others, excited by the radiation of nearby stars, emit their own light. A few smaller spots of nebulosity are the remains of dying stars known as “planetary nebulae.” The “dark nebulae” are vast clouds of cooler dust-imbued gas. The easily visible dark division that runs the length of the Milky Way from Cygnus to Sagittarius, known as the “Great Rift,” is one of these. All of the nebulae hint at an eternal cycle which, while continuous, seems frozen in time when viewed on human time scales. The vast clouds of gas and dust are at once, the raw materials of star birth and the detritus of stellar death.
All in all, the August sky is quite a wonderland, so don’t squander any chance you get to stare into the heavens and be amazed.