“Space, the final frontier.” Every Starfleet cadet, even Captain James T. Kirk, had to start somewhere: the ground. Whether your goal is to eventually explore the cosmos or at least understand why NASA updates about Pluto are such a big deal, the perfect time to learn about space is now.
In fact, August is a great time to learn about the universe because of two annual events coming up. The Perseid Meteor Shower is known for its numerous, bright meteors that light up the sky. And the August supermoon, which is not the brightest supermoon of the year but it is a welcome introduction to more supermoons to come.
What tools do newbie stargazers need to begin learning about the sky?
A brief-but-simple guide to the night sky is helpful. This resource can come in the form of informative videos, or even paperback or online companions. A good source should provide maps of star patterns (known as “constellations”) and definitions of other night-time phenomena.
For example, as defined by NASA, a supermoon is “…when the moon is slightly closer to Earth than on average” and as result, appears larger. They generally occur four to six times a year and vary in degrees of brightness and position relative to Earth. The next supermoon will appear on August 29, but the next closest supermoon of 2015 is predicted to occur on September 28, giving amateur stargazers plenty of time to hone their astronomy skills.
Another helpful tool for stargazers of all ages is a clear night sky. Because of light pollution, heavily populated cities are not ideal locations for night-time observation. Rural areas with no lampposts and skyscrapers usually provide unobstructed views.
If you can afford it, devices like binoculars and telescopes can give you a closer look at the sky as well. These tools have lenses to make small objects, like how stars look to our naked eyes, appear larger inside a scope.
If purchasing these tools is not an option, check a farmer’s almanac for dates with clear skies so you can view constellations with your naked eye. Other phenomena such as eclipses, certain meteor showers etc. are usually listed in almanacs as well. Some of these, depending on their brightness and proximity to Earth, can be seen without the aid of telescopes and binoculars.
John Mosley is the program Supervisor at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California, and author of “Starry Night Companion: Your Guide to Understanding the Night Sky.” In his guide for amateur stargazers, he iterates one of the events star buffs can lookout for are meteor showers.
“If Earth passes through or near the orbit of a comet, we pass through a region filled with dust, and meteors fall by the hundreds,” Mosley states,” A shower happens at the same time each year, when Earth returns to that part of its orbit.”
Fortunately for us, the Earth is passing through the debris zone of a comet right now. On August. 12, we will experience the peak of Perseid Meteor Shower. It was discovered in 1862 and is known for its vivid meteors that should be viewed without binoculars or telescopes. A product of the comet Swift-Tuttle, the Perseid Meteor Shower can releases as many as 100 bright meteors per hour.
In 2014, the Perseid Meteor Shower occurred around the same time as the August supermoon.
As reported by Dr. Tony Phillips, Ph.D of NASA Science News, the rare event was predicted to be a “moonlit landscape, and an occasional fireball cutting past a supermoon: […] ensemble with a special beauty all its own.”
The outlook for this year’s August supermoon is expected to take place weeks after the Perseid Meteor Shower, but will nonetheless be a bright sight. The lack of an astronomical competition between the two could actually prove beneficial to new stargazers who are still learning how to “see” the sky.
According to Bill Cooke of NASA’s Meteroid Enviroment Office, “Lunar glare [of supermoons] wipes out the black-velvety backdrop required to see faint meteors, and sharply reduces counts.”
The supermoon’s perceived size and brightness will differ depending on a stargazer’s location.
According to “Sea and Sky’s Astronomical Calendar,” the August supermoon of 2015 will be at its brightest at 18:30 5 UTC.
During August 2015, stargazers have the opportunity to see the Perseid Meteor Shower and the August supermoon as mutually exclusive events. This year’s Perseid Meteors will be easier to see because the supermoon is occurring later. Hopefully, these two events will be enough excitement to inspire amateur astronomers “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” like Mars or their backyards.