MAINE SKIES

Maine Skies: Planetary pairings, meteor shower in the August night sky

Posted July 30, 2014, at 3:21 p.m.

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The Viking missions to Mars each consisted of two vehicles, Lander and Orbiter. Viking 1 was launched on Aug. 20, 1975 and arrived at the red planet on June 19, 1976.

The hope had been to set Lander down on the surface of Mars on July 4, 1976, to observe the nation’s bicentennial, but the landing was delayed to July 20 when it became the first spacecraft to land successfully on the surface of Mars.

Immediately it began to send back photos of the Martian surface showing details never before seen. Lander had several scientific experiments aboard, with the most publicized being its search for signs of life.

The results of the study are still being argued.

A faulty command sent from Earth caused a loss of contact in 1982 that was never reestablished. Today, Lander still sits on the Martian plain where it was photographed in 2006 by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Focus on the Planets

August will be home to two planetary pairings, Jupiter and Venus on Aug. 18 and Saturn and Mars from Aug. 23-26.

Mercury disappears behind the sun early in August and will reappear near month’s end. On Aug. 27, it will lie just to the right of the waxing crescent moon but so low in the sky that it will be difficult to spot.

Venus begins the month low in the east-northeast at dawn, where it is a companion of Jupiter.

Mars will be well up in the west-southwest an hour after sunset where, on Aug. 2, it will stand just to the left of the moon.

Jupiter will rise to the lower-left of Venus at dawn about a week into August. The pair make a tempting target, standing well above the horizon an hour before sunrise.

Saturn opens the month well up in the southwest at dusk. Saturn’s rings are tilted at 21 degrees to our line of sight, offering excellent views of its rings and the Cassini division.

Uranus will rise in the south, a bit before sunrise, among the stars of Pisces. Its blue-green disk will be visible with binoculars.

Neptune is in the southwest among the stars of Aquarius around 2:00 a.m., as a blue-gray disk. This is its best apparition of the year. Sky & Telescope’s website at skypub.com/urnep will provide finder’s charts for both of the outermost planets.

August Events

1 Sunrise, 5:21 a.m.; sunset, 8:02 p.m. This is Lammas, a cross-quarter day midway between the summer solstice and autumn equinox. Mars, Saturn and the bright star Spica are aligned in ascending order from right to left in the southwest after sunset. The moon passes above the trio over the next four nights.

4 First quarter moon, 8:50 p.m.

10 Full moon, 2:10 p.m. The full moon of August is called the Sturgeon moon, Green Corn moon, or Grain moon. The moon is also at perigee, or closest approach to Earth, and this could result in abnormally high tides. The sun enters Leo on the ecliptic.

13 The Perseid meteor shower peaks tonight. Normally a good shower of up to 100 meteors per hour, many will be obscured by the bright moon.

17 Last quarter moon, 8:26 a.m.

18 Look for a very close pairing of Venus and Jupiter in the east about an hour before sunrise.

23 The sun enters the astrological sign of Virgo, but astronomically is still in Leo.

24 The moon is at apogee, or farthest distance from Earth.

25 New moon, 10:12 a.m.

31 Sunrise, 5:56 a.m.; sunset, 7:15 p.m. Saturn is to the lower-right and Mars to the lower-left of the moon, looking southwest an hour after sunset.

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