Mars and Saturn pop into view as soon as darkness falls throughout August 2014. In early August, look for golden Saturn, ruddy Mars and blue-white Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, to line up in the southwestern sky. Let the waxing crescent moon help guide you to this bright star and the evening planets on August 1, August 2 and August 3.
Mercury, the innermost planet, transitions into the evening sky on August 8, 2014. However, this world doesn’t climb high enough from the glare of sunset to be visible at mid-northern latitudes. Residents in the Southern Hemisphere may see Mercury late in August 2014, especially as the moon pairs up with Mercury on August 27.
Venus and Jupiter, the sky’s brightest and second-brightest planets, respectively, present the closest planet-planet conjunction of the year in the August morning sky. Jupiter passed into the morning sky on July 24, 2014, and should become visible before sunrise sometime during the second week of August. After watching the Perseid meteors on the expected peak night of August 12-13, cap everything off with a splendid view of Venus and Jupiter at dawn. Here’s a preview of our August 13 program on the upcoming conjunction of Venus and Jupiter.
Special sky events coming up in late July and early August 2014:
Mars visible from evening dusk until late evening. Although we passed between Mars and the sun in April 2014, and although the planet is not getting dimmer as it lags behind us in its larger and slower orbit, Mars appears respectably bright throughout August, 2014. This ruddy world still shines on par with Spica, the constellation Virgo’s brightest star, which is close to Mars on the sky’s dome.
But Mars is about to go on the move again, in front of the background stars, as Earth flies ahead of it in orbit. Mars starts the month in front of the constellation Virgo, and then moves in front of Libra on August 9. Mars meets up with Saturn near the end of the month.
Then, as August 2014 comes to a close, watch for the waxing crescent moon to join up with Mars and Saturn on August 31.
Saturn from evening dusk until around midnight. This month, as seen from northerly latitudes, the ringed planet Saturn is found in the southwest at nightfall and early evening. This golden-colored world shines in front of the constellation Libra the Scales. Mars moves toward Saturn throughout August 2014, and meets up with Saturn in late August.
Binoculars won’t reveal Saturn’s gorgeous rings, but a small telescope will. This month, Saturn is highest for the night at nightfall and should be a fine telescopic object at early evening. Saturn’s rings are inclined at about 21o from edge-on in August 2014, showing us their north face. Several years from now, in October 2017, the rings will open most widely, displaying a maximum inclination of 27o. As with so much in space (and on Earth), the appearance of Saturn’s rings from Earth is cyclical. In the year 2025, the rings will appear edge-on as seen from Earth. After that, we’ll begin to see the south side of Saturn’s rings, to increase to a maximum inclination of 27o by May 2032.
Mercury at dusk, starting late August (at southerly latitudes). Mercury transitions into the evening sky on August 8, 2014. However, this world doesn’t climb high enough from the glare of sunset to be easily visible at mid-northern latitudes. Some of you photographers might catch it, but it’ll be tough to spot with the eye. If you do get a photo, submit to EarthSky.
Meanwhile, people in the Southern Hemisphere may see Mercury late in the month, especially as the moon pairs up with Mercury on August 27. For the Southern hemisphere, the evening apparition of Mercury starting in August 2014 and continuing all the way until early October will be the best showing of Mercury in the evening sky for this year.
Northerly latitudes … tough luck on this one!
Venus before sunrise throughout August. Venus beams in the eastern dawn sky throughout August 2014, though it is slowly but surely sinking into the glare of sunrise. At mid-northern latitudes, the morning “star” rises nearly two hours before sunup at the beginning of month but only somewhat more than one hour before the sun at the month’s end. Jupiter will become visible in the morning sky during the second week of August, and then will pair up with Venus to present the closest planet-planet conjunction of the year on August 18.
You need a telescope to observe the phases of Venus. Whenever you see Venus in the morning sky, it is always moving away from Earth and its phase is continually waxing (getting broader). The phase of Venus will be hard to discern now, though, through a small telescope, because this world appears nearly full to us. This month, Venus’ disk starts out about 92% illuminated and ends the month about 97% illuminated. Believe it or not, Venus shines at or near its brightest in the morning (or evening) sky when its disk is about one-quarter lit up in sunshine. That’s because, at such times, the disk of Venus is always larger in our sky than when the planet appears full. Venus’ illuminated portion last covered the greatest square area of our sky on February 15, when its disk was 26% illuminated.
Nonetheless, Venus is always bright. It will remain the brightest starlike object in the morning sky until it fades into the sunrise in late September or early October 2014.
When will Jupiter return? Jupiter was the brightest celestial object to light up the evening sky in early July, but by mid-July it disappeared in the sunset glare. Jupiter should return to visibility in the east at early dawn, starting sometime in the second week of August, 2014. It’ll have a wonderful conjunction with Venus – the year’s closest of any two planets – on the morning of August 18.
What do we mean by visible planet? By visible planet, we mean any solar system planet that is easily visible without an optical aid and that has been watched by our ancestors since time immemorial. In their outward order from the sun, the five visible planets are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These planets are visible in our sky because their disks reflect sunlight, and these relatively nearby worlds tend to shine with a steadier light than the distant, twinkling stars. They tend to be bright! You can spot them, and come to know them as faithful friends, if you try.
Bottom line: The moon returns to the evening sky in late July, and then “leapfrogs” over a bright star and two bright planets – Saturn and Mars – in the first several days of August. The closest supermoon of the year comes on August 10, in the midst of the 2014 Perseid meteor shower. Jupiter and Venus have a wonderful conjunction – closest of any two planets in 2014 – before dawn on August 18.