August is the last full month of summer, and there will be plenty of highlights to enjoy under our warm skies before autumn returns.

The successful return of the Atlantis space shuttle on the morning of July 21 marked the end of our current space program. Thirty years and 135 launches later, we have gained a completely new perspective of Earth and the universe. This group of five space shuttles performed well for many years. Although it never lived up to all of its potential, its benefits to mankind far outweighed its failures.

Two of the shuttles, the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003, did not survive their missions. There is always an element of risk involved when you are pushing the limits of our collective knowledge and technology to gain a deeper understanding of reality.

This fleet of space vehicles is our modern version of the sailing ships of Columbus more than 500 years ago. Columbus ended up losing nine ships over the course of his voyages, none of which have been found. Our space shuttles have proved to be a reliable means to successfully launch many important satellites into space, including three of the four great observatories and all the components for the International Space Station.

The ISS is now the largest man-made object ever placed into space. It required the cooperation of more than 100,000 people from 16 nations working in hundreds of companies to successfully build this platform of continuing discovery. It already has given us advances in medicine, technology and science, and we continue to learn more about how the human body works and improve our understanding of the environment in which we all live. As it orbits above us, it is visible to more than 90 percent of all the people on Earth, as long as they look up at the right time to see it.

The shuttles also launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, the Compton Gamma Ray Telescope in 1991 and the Chandra X-Ray Telescope in 1999, on board STS 93.

The entire shuttle fleet has traveled more than 500 million miles collectively, which is all the way to Jupiter, or nearly one hour at the speed of light. They have completed 21,150 orbits and lifted more than 300 people into space. The shuttle program has cost us $200 billion over its 30-year life. That works out to only about $20 per American per year. The return on that tiny investment was enormous, but most people really haven’t availed themselves of even a tiny fraction of what we have learned about our amazing universe in the last 30 years.

Now there will be a gap until about 2015 before NASA will approve a new type of space vehicle, which will be developed by private industry. In the meantime, we will use Russian Soyuz rockets to get to the ISS. The cost is a little steep at $50 million per seat, but about half of that is just the cost of the rocket fuel needed to lift the weight of the astronaut into orbit out of the gravity well of the earth. The Space Age continues, and we will keep exploring forever because it is built right into our DNA as we keep pushing the limits of our knowledge beyond were we currently find ourselves.

Just as the space shuttle program has ended, we will lose the planet Saturn by the end of August. However, Saturn will simply pop up again in the morning sky after that, and the shuttle program will not pop up again. Watch the slender waxing crescent moon pass under Saturn one hour after sunset during the evenings of the second, third, and fourth. Notice that the gap between the ringed planet and Porrima in Virgo is ever so slightly widening with time over the month.

Jupiter now shines brightly in Aries, near Taurus, and rises around midnight. It will rise by 10 p.m. by the end of August.

Mars rises around 3 a.m. You can see the red planet in Gemini along with the waning crescent moon 45 minutes before sunrise in the eastern sky during the mornings of Aug. 25-27. Notice that Mercury will also be in that scene very low on the horizon to the left and below Mars.

We will lose another planet in August, Venus. It will go through superior conjunction on the 16th, passing behind the sun at its farthest point away from us in its orbit. After that it will simply become an evening planet again. The next conjunction our sister planet will pass through, called an inferior conjunction, will actually be a transit this time, when Venus crosses directly in front of the face of the sun for its second and last transit this century. The last one was just seven years ago on June 8, 2004. Clearing up in time just before it ended around 7:15 that memorable morning, I got an unexpected view of its atmosphere, a semicircular silvery arc of light silhouetted against the blackness of deep space just as it was exiting the face of the sun. The next one will be on June 6, 2012.

Aug. 6: First quarter moon is at 7:08 a.m.

Aug. 11: On this day in 1877, Asaph Hall discovered Deimos, one of the two moons of Mars.

Aug. 12: The Perseid Meteor Shower peaks tonight. Unfortunately, the nearly full moon will wash out most of the meteors this year, tiny pieces of dust and debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle.

Aug. 13: Full moon is at 2:57 p.m. This is also called the Sturgeon, Green Corn or Grain moon.

Aug. 17: On this day in 1877, Hall discovered Phobos, the other tiny moon of Mars.

Aug. 19: The moon passes just above Jupiter around midnight.

Aug. 20: Voyager 2 was launched on this day in 1977.

Aug. 21: Last quarter moon is at 5:54 p.m.

Aug. 22: The waning crescent moon passes below the Pleiades overnight around 1 a.m.

Aug. 23: Neptune is at opposition tonight. You will need a telescope to see its ethereal blue disk. Our last planet has just completed one orbit since its discovery 165 years ago.

Aug. 28: New moon is at 11:04 p.m. On this day in 1789, William Herschel discovered Enceladus, a strange moon of Saturn which has erupting ice volcanoes.

Bernie Reim of Wells is co-director of the Astronomical Society of Northern New England.