As the Shuttle Atlantis undocked from the International Space Station for the last time on July 19, few realized that the ISS might not have been there at all. In late June, an unidentified piece of space debris sped by the ISS, missing it by only 1,100 feet. It would have caused catastrophic damage if there had been an impact. The ISS crew had been warned by ground observatories of the potential hit and had taken refuge in their “lifeboats,” two Soyuz space capsules designed for emergency evacuation of a crippled space station. A similar near hit occurred in March 2009 when an old satellite motor sailed past. The United States’ role in going to the ISS by space shuttle is at an end, however, if American astronauts do visit the station by “hitchhiking” on a Russian craft, they too may one day face the same sort of hazard as space becomes ever more crowded with a now-estimated half-million pieces of debris.
Focus on the Planets
Mercury will not be visible until the last few days of August when it rises in the east about an hour before sunrise. On the morning of Aug. 27, a thin crescent moon will appear to the upper right of Mercury.
Venus is lost from view in August, returning to the evening sky in October.
Mars rises in the east about two hours after midnight but is so far distant, at 200 million miles, that the faint disk will reveal few details. Mars is sandwiched between the crescent moon and the twin stars of Castor and Pollux on Aug. 25.
Jupiter rises in the east around midnight as the month opens and by 10 p.m. at its end. The best viewing time is near dawn, and viewers with telescopes will be treated to numerous surface features such as the equatorial belts as well as the dancing movements of the four moons. On Aug. 28, the shadow of Ganymede can be seen to trek across the face of the giant planet.
Saturn is high in the west-southwest shortly after nightfall where, on Aug. 3, it is directly above the crescent moon. The ring system is now open to 9 degrees and gradually widening.
Uranus is in the southwest near the Circlet of Pisces and is identifiable as a blue-green disk in the very early morning twilight.
Neptune is a tiny blue-gray disk in Aquarius and is best found, as is Uranus, by means of a finder’s chart. Neptune is highest around 1 a.m.
1: Sunrise, 5:21 a.m.; sunset, 8:02 p.m. Today is Lammas, a crossquarter day marking the midpoint between the summer solstice and fall equinox.
2: The moon is at perigee, or nearest approach to Earth.
3: Looking west-southwest one hour after sunset will reveal the crescent moon with Saturn directly above it. The next night has the moon beneath the bright star Spica.
6: Moon in first quarter, 7:08 a.m.
11: The sun enters Leo on the ecliptic.
13: This should be the peak night for the Perseid meteor shower, but coming with the full moon means that all but a handful of the brightest ones will be washed out. Look for up to 20 per hour of fast, bright meteors that often leave trails.
Full moon, 2:57 p.m. The full moon of August is known as the Sturgeon Moon, Red Moon, Green Corn Moon, or Grain Moon.
18: The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth.
21: Moon in last quarter, 5:56 p.m. Note that the moon is directly below the Pleiades with Jupiter to the upper right.
23: The sun enters the astrological sign of Virgo, however, astronomically, it is still in Leo.
25: Mars is located just to the left of the moon about an hour before sunrise with the twins, Castor and Pollux, farther to the left. Mercury may be spotted just above the horizon.
29: New moon, 11:03 p.m.
30: The moon is at perigee for the second time in August.
31: Sunrise, 5:56 a.m.; sunset, 7:15 p.m.