August opens with a trio of neighboring planets playing tag in our western evening sky shortly after sunset. We are in the middle of summer now, and the nights are getting longer again so we can enjoy more of their wonders.

The night sky always has much to offer, but many of us simply don’t take the time to appreciate our connection to the universe and how that can greatly improve the quality of our daily lives as we put that knowledge and imagination into practice.

Two meteor showers will grace our skies in August, including the famous Perseids. A short period comet should also get bright enough to be seen with a pair of binoculars by the middle of August.

Look low in the western sky shortly after sunset and you will see that Mars has already passed Saturn. Venus will also glide below Saturn about a week later.

These three planets will put on a display of beautiful celestial geometry all month long. On Aug. 10, the three will form a near isosceles triangle, with two of the sides nearly equal, with brilliant Venus anchoring the bottom, orange Mars to the upper left, and golden Saturn to the upper right.

This triangle will fit into a 7 degree-diameter circle. Then continue watching this ever-changing geometry lesson as a slender waxing crescent moon joins the trio on the evening of Thursday, Aug. 12, the night that the Perseid meteor shower will peak.

There will even be an earlier meteor shower in August, the northern Delta Aquarids, peaking on Sunday night, Aug. 8. The comet that created these meteors has long since taken on a different orbit or crashed, unlike Comet Swift-Tuttle, which causes the Perseids each year. Although its numbers will not be nearly as prolific as the famous Perseids, the northern Delta Aquarids originate from a very interesting place in our night sky.

The radiant of this meteor shower will be just above the first magnitude star named Fomalhaut in Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish. This star became famous in November 2008 when the first planet to be seen directly with visible light as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope was found orbiting Fomalhaut. Named Fomalhaut B, this planet is located 10 billion miles from its parent star, which is 10 times the distance to Saturn. Fomalhaut B takes 875 years for one orbit and is no more than three times the mass of Jupiter. If it were any more massive, it would have destroyed the vast dust belt that surrounds Fomalhaut. About 20 billion miles in diameter, this great dust ring is 2 billion miles wide, or about 25 times the distance from Earth to the sun. This shows how tremendously balanced and delicate this giant dust ring really is.

It was suspected for eight years that a planet might be orbiting Fomalhaut because of this dust ring, but it wasn’t proven until November 2008. At that time, only about 300 other planets had been found in other solar systems, but this was the first one seen directly without having to infer its presence through other means of detection. Now we know of nearly 500 exoplanets.

Fomalhaut is twice the mass and diameter of our sun and is only 25 light years away. It is a very young star, only about 200 million years old — less than one-20th the age of Earth and our sun.

That is about the time the first dinosaurs appeared and the last supercontinent, Pangea, started breaking up. Fish have existed in our oceans for more than twice that time. Fomalhaut means the mouth of the fish or whale in Arabic.

The famous Perseids will be favorable this year because there will be no moon to interfere with this tremendous celestial fireworks display. You can expect up to 100 meteors per hour from a dark sky before dawn on the morning of Friday the 13th.

You can expect about half that many the night before and after that date. Look low in the northeastern sky in Perseus the Hero to catch these prolific meteors. These tiny, sand grain-sized pieces of comet dust will be crashing into our upper atmosphere at nearly 40 miles per second, leaving brilliant streaks of light.

There will be a short period comet, named 10P/Tempel, that should be visible by the middle of August with binoculars or a small telescope.

It orbits the sun every 5.4 years, looping from just inside the path of Mars out to Jupiter’s path. comparison, Halley’s Comet takes 76 years to make one orbit and is not due back until 2062, although you can see tiny pieces of this famous comet burn up in our atmosphere as meteors twice each year: on May 4 as the Eta Aquarids, and on Oct. 21 as the Orionids.

Comet 10P/Tempel should reach the eighth magnitude or brighter and be visible by 1 a.m. in the constellation of Cetus the Whale in the southeastern sky. This comet reached perihelion, or its closest approach to the sun, on July 4.

Try to catch this ancient relic from our solar system’s original formation this month, because you will have to wait three more orbits, until 2026, for its next favorable apparition.

The gas giants Uranus and Neptune are also interesting to see in August, but you will need binoculars or a telescope to really appreciate these last two planets, representing one quarter of all the planets in our “new” reduced solar system. Uranus should be easy to find, because it will be just 2 degrees to the right of brilliant Jupiter in Pisces, now rising before 10 p.m.

However, Uranus will be nearly nine magnitudes or about 3,000 times fainter than Jupiter. Our seventh planet was officially discovered on March 13, 1781 by William Herschel.

It was actually discovered by John Flamsteed back in 1690, but he thought it was just a star in Taurus, so he did not get any credit.

If he would have kept watching it from night and night, he would have noticed that it moved a little, so that would preclude it from being a star.

Neptune, mathematically predicted to exist in 1845 by John Couch Adams in Cambridge and LeVerrier in Paris, but first observed by the German astronomer Johann Galle on Sept. 23, 1846, will have finally completed one orbit around the sun since that time.

Neptune is the only planet in our solar system that was first shown to exist mathematically and then was actually found to exist, providing dramatic proof of Newton’s laws.

Neptune was actually first seen by several other astronomers, including Galileo, in 1612 and 1613, but again it was mistaken for just a star. The beautiful blue disk of Neptune is now in almost the same place in the sky as when it was discovered 165 years ago.


Aug. 3: Last quarter moon is at 12:59 a.m. The Messenger spacecraft was launched to Mercury on this day in 2004.

Aug. 5: Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon, was born on this day in 1930, the same year that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto.

Aug. 9: Venus passes 3 degrees south of Saturn tonight. New moon is at 11:08 p.m.

Aug. 11: Asaph Hall discovered Deimos, one of the two tiny moons of Mars, on this day in 1877. He discovered Phobos, the other moon of Mars, on Aug. 17, 1877.

Aug. 12: The Perseid meteor shower peaks.

Aug. 13: The moon passes just south of Saturn, Venus and Mars tonight.

Aug. 16: First quarter moon is at 2:14 p.m.

Aug. 22: On this day in 1963, the X-15 set the world altitude record for a winged craft at 354,000 feet, or 67 miles above the earth.

Aug. 24: Full moon is at 1:05 p.m. This is also called the Sturgeon, Grain or Green Corn Moon. 

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