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Astronomy Know How
Helping you See the Night Sky - Newsletter No. 10 August 2007
In this issue:
  1. August's Highlights
  2. Perseid Meteors
  3. Summer Asterisms
  4. Tip of the Month
  5. News Links
  6. Contact Us
August's Highlights

The nights are just beginning to draw out now, so this is s good time of year to get out under the stars and do some observing. If the skies are clear and the weather warm, you can pass a pleasant few hours just enjoying the sky with your naked eyes or a pair of binoculars.

The major event of this month is the Perseid Meteor Shower around the 11th/12th of the month, but don't ignore the other wonders of the night sky at this time of year, even when you are trying to observe meteors!

An occultation by the Moon of the Pleiades star cluster will take place on the night of the 6/7th of August visible from Europe. This is where the Moon appears to pass in front of the stars. The Moon will be a 37% illuminated waning crescent and will rise just after 22h 30m UT (Universal Time or GMT - Greenwich Mean Time) low in the North-East. Just over an hour later, the Moon will appear to 'slide' over the cluster. You should see each star 'wink out' to later wink back into view as they emerge from the darkened limb of the Moon some time later.

If you fancy a spot of planetary observing this month, then have a go at finding Neptune. It reaches opposition (opposite the Sun in the sky from our perspective) on the 13th of the month and shines at magnitude 7.8 in the constellation of Capricornus, so you will need a pair of binoculars or a small telescope to spot it. Through a telescope at moderate power, you should be able to make out a tiny bluish disc. It doesn't look great through a scope, but at least you can see this most distant planet of our Solar System which is rewarding in its own right.

On the night of the 28/29th of August the minor planet Vesta, one of the largest Asteroids in our Solar System brushes past Jupiter, which should be an aid to finding this wanderer among the stars. Jupiter should be easy to find low in the south not long after the sun has set as the sky begins to darken. A good star chart will help you to tease out Vesta from the background stars and on the night of the 28th it will appear to be less than a half a degree north of Jupiter.
Perseid Meteors

If you possess a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you can find some truly amazing clusters of stars to observe to while away the short hours of darkness.

This month sees the return of the famous Perseid Meteor Shower. This is a popular shower to observe due to the (normally) warm and clear nights we get during the middle of August.

This years predicted 'peak' nights are the 10/11th and the maximum on the night of the 12/13th and again a good showing through to the 14/15th of the month. The best time to see any meteor shower is after midnight UT as the rotation of the Earth means that the planet is spinning into the path of the shower. However, don't expect the skies to be crammed full of 'shooting stars' as it is quite normal to go many minutes without seeing a single meteor and then perhaps two or three in quick succession. So patience is the key here.

A deck chair or a sun longer can be useful to get comfortable for a night observing of meteors. You may also want a pair of binoculars and a notebook. It is best to observe meteors away from their 'radiant' point, that is the point in the sky where all the meteors of a particular shower seem to originate. You'll get a better view if you look some 30-degrees away from this point -perhaps studying a patch of sky in the constellation of Cygnus for example. If you would like to know more about how to observe meteors and when you can expect to see the best ones you might like to take a look at the online course 'Basic Astronomy With A Telescope' which you can download at 'Basic Astronomy with a Telescope'.

While you are waiting for a meteor or two to streak across the sky, why not take a little time to see if you can see a large but difficult to observe nebula in the summer sky. The North America Nebula is a misty patch just of the south-eastern tip of the bright star Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus the Swan, otherwise know as the northern cross. You will need a clear dark sky with little or no light-pollution to see it at all well and binoculars will certainly help. It is quite a large, extended object, so you need the large field of view that binoculars give you compared to that of a telescope.
Summer Asterisms

An 'Asterism' is a group of stars that makes up an easily recognisable pattern that does not necessarily have any bearing on the pattern of a constellation or group of constellations. So the 'Summer Triangle' asterism for example, is made from the three bright stars that are the main stars of the constellations of Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila or Deneb, Altair and Vega to give the stars their proper names.

Asterisms can of course be a familiar part of one constellation, for example the 'Square' of Pegasus, or the 'Keystone' of Hercules. These asterisms are not the whole constellation, just a familiar or easily recognisable part of it.

Other quite well known examples are the 'Kite' in Bootes the Herdsman, or the 'Circlet' in Pisces, the 'Teapot' in Sagittarius and of course the 'Belt' of Orion. You can even make your own ones up, as this can be a useful way of finding you way around the sky and learning the full shapes of the constellations.
Tip of the Month

If you would like to try photographing the Perseid meteors there are one or two things that are useful to know...

Tip: If you are using a digital camera, it is best to use a tripod and keep to fairly short exposures, perhaps just 10 - 15 seconds. This will help to reduce to effects of star trailing and that of light pollution. Also point you camera away from the radiant point (see above) to better record the streaks of the meteors. Either a cable release or remote shutter release also will help to reduce vibration, which can spoil a good photograph.

Finally, take lots of pictures, as sometimes the camera can record a meteor that you didn't see and the more you take, the more likely you are to have recorded 'something'. Good luck!
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