After a nine and then some year trip, the New Horizon space probe arrived at Pluto last month. It’s incredible that it wasn’t hit by any space debris over that long trip or suffer any major electronic or mechanical failures. It’s even more astonishing that it flew past Pluto and its five moons without hitting anything in that complicated and busy area.
The fly-past was a picture perfect success – you couldn’t ask for more! Speaking of pictures, the initial images showed spectacular structure and very varied features on Pluto’s surface and with a good smattering of mountains thrown in for good measure too. Who could have expected such a dynamic and active terrain way out there in the hinterlands of our Solar System? The surface is actually quite young – a few million years old. This means that an active interior is changing the surface constantly. There may even be an ocean under the ice crust with a possibility of simple life forms. It will take a year and a half to receive all the data from the probe. New Horizon’s radio equipment had to be low power and small due to power and weight considerations. This meant that its rate of data transmission ended up being very slow.
The highlight for me this month is the Perseid meteor shower that peaks around 2 pm on August 13 (clear skies please, please, please!). This shower can show off as many as 100 meteors per hour. The meteors are debris from the Comet Swift Tuttle, which last returned in the 90’s and isn’t expected to make another appearance until 2122.
The New Moon is on the 14th so the sky will be moon free and as dark as it can be. This will allow us to see even the faintest meteors. There will be very good meteor watching for several nights leading up to and for several nights after the peak. The radiant is in the constellation Perseus and there should be some Earth skimming meteors (Earthgrazers) early in the evening when the constellation is low to the north northeastern horizon. Later in the night, as Perseus rises higher in the sky, conditions will become better. The meteors start hitting the Earth more head on. An average around 2 am would be about a meteor a minute. Remember to let your eyes get dark adapted when you go out and dress warmly. I know we’ve been suffering a heat wave lately but it sure can get chilly late at night, especially when you’re not moving around much.
Between the 17th and 23rd, Mars is quite close to the very large Beehive Cluster (Messier 44). The Moon, waxing and in its first quarter, is 4 degrees east of Saturn on the 22nd. Saturn is the only planet this month that can be seen in the dark of the night. The other visible planets are viewable only during twilight. It is well up in the south southwest in Libra as night falls. The rings are well open to view and the shadow of Saturn’s globe on the rings is at a maximum this month.
The Full Moon this month is on the 29th. One name for it is the Full Sturgeon Moon. The sturgeon is a big fish that can be found in the Great Lakes and other large bodies of water. The best time for catching this fish is during August. It is also called the Red Moon due to hazy August weather conditions. The recent 2nd Full Moon of July, frequently called a Blue Moon, was actually red in colour! Another name is the Corn Moon because corn starts ripening by the beginning of August.
August is fantastic for viewing DSOs (Deep Space Objects) in the Milky Way. One special place to look with your binoculars is above the constellation Sagittarius, often referred to as the Teapot. This asterism (a shaping of stars within a constellation that looks like an everyday object) can be found low in the south about mid evening. The southern section of the Milky Way rises up from this area. Magnificent star fields and star clusters are very easy to find. Look a few degrees east of the summer triangle star Deneb at the tail of Cygnus, the Swan. See if you can find the North American Nebula in your binoculars. It’s shaped just like North America complete with Florida. Get out a star chart of the region and go exploring!
The Beginner’s Observer’s Guide by Leo Enright is available at the Sharbot Lake Pharmacy or by contacting the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada www.rasc.ca/publications, subscriptions for our very own excellent Canadian astronomy magazine, Sky News, are also available from RASC..