August is a slow month for observing the planets.
Jupiter is still observable low in the southwest at dusk, and remains up for a few hours, though itís low in the sky and past its prime. Itís been a great Jupiter year (even if I never did manage to see that darned Red Spot Junior) -- thereís been lots of detail to watch in the bands and festoons.
There are lots of double shadow and moon transits on Jupiter this month, too. A shadow transit is when the shadow of one of Jupiterís four largest ďGalileanĒ moons falls on the planet as we see it from Earth. Theyíre fairly easy to see even when Jupiter is low in the sky, even with a small telescope -- Iíve seen them using the clubís 60mm loaner refractor. The Galilean moons move fast: It only takes a few hours for one of their shadows to cross Jupiterís disk. So you can watch ingress (when the shadow first appears) to egress (when it disappears off the other side), and in many cases youíll also get to watch the moon thatís casting the shadow cross in front of Jupiter, where it will eventually disappear against the planetís brightness.
But theyíre usually visible for a while against the limb of Jupiter before they disappear, and if you havenít seen that, itís an eerie sight every astronomer should see at least once.
But really, this month is best for the outer planets. Neptune is at opposition on August 11th, and is very well placed for observing. Look for it in Capricornus. Uranus, too (in Ophiuchus) is well placed for observing. And Pluto is just a few months past opposition, so this is still prime Pluto season: grab a good chart and a big scope and go at it.
Mercury emerges into morning twilight early in the month, but is lost again by mid-month. Venus, too, is in the morning sky, and makes a close pass with Mercury on the 10th, and a very close pass with Saturn (which is only visible during the latter half of the month) on the 26th and 27th.
Mars is too close to the sun to be easily observed right now. Thatís ironic, because it looks like the annual flood of ďMars will be BIGGER THAN THE MOON!Ē hoax emails has begun to flow (inspired by the conjunction three years ago, but people never put dates or details on stuff they forward around the internet, do they?) I talked about this hoax in last Augustís column, while we were all getting ready for the Mars opposition. It didnít occur to me at the time that Iíd see it again, even in years like this one that donít have a Mars opposition at all; but I guess this may become an annual event.
Oh, you were wondering about the title of this column? Well, last year when the hoax mails were flying, people kept asking me ďIs Mars going to be bigger than the moon?Ē The answer to that is, of course Mars is bigger than the moon. And Uranus and Neptune -- well, theyíre WAY bigger than our little moon. In fact, all the planets except Pluto are bigger than our moon. So if someone asks you if Mars is going to be bigger than the moon this August ... the answer is yes! It just wonít LOOK bigger ...
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