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Sept. 21, 2021

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Northwest stargazers can enjoy the brilliant bands of Saturn – and much more

Perseids, which have already begun, continue through late August

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
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A Juno space probe passed below Jupiter and took this photograph of the giant planet's cloud bands on April 10, 2020.
A Juno space probe passed below Jupiter and took this photograph of the giant planet's cloud bands on April 10, 2020. (Contributed by NASA/JPL-CalTech/SwRI/MSSS) Photo Gallery

Put a ring on your summer night.

That’s your stargazing challenge for the first evening of August: to look up and track down the foremost jewelry in space, the rings of Saturn.

While recent space probes have discovered that intricate ring systems also encircle the three other gas giants in our outer solar system — Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune — Saturn’s big, brilliant bands always steal the stargazing show.

That will certainly be true on Sunday night, when that second-largest planet in our galactic neighborhood reaches what’s called opposition. That is, from our vantage point, it’ll be directly opposite the Sun. The lineup of shining star and shiny planet, with us in between, provides ideal illumination for earthbound viewers, so you’ll be able to see the bright disk of Saturn fly across the sky throughout the night, with visibility best at around midnight.

Saturn is already visible in the night sky now, but running late as it rises in the east-southeast just before 9 tonight and reaching culmination, or highest point in the sky, just after 1:30 a.m. Those times will shift gradually earlier until, on Sunday — opposition day — Saturn rises just after 8:30 p.m. and reaches culmination just after 1 a.m. You don’t have to stay up that late, though, because viewing should be great throughout the late evening.

Because Saturn is nearly 10 times as far away from the Sun as Earth, its disk will be bright but undetailed. If you want to see those spectacular rings, grab a pair of binoculars when you go out.

Many, many moons

Later in August, the solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, also reaches opposition. Take your binoculars again for a good look on or around Aug. 20, because Jupiter offers so much to stare at.

For one thing, Jupiter is approximately half as far away from Earth as Saturn is. It’s also larger. While Saturn’s diameter is 72,000 miles, or sufficient to swallow 700 planet Earths, Jupiter’s diameter is almost 87,000 miles — big enough to inhale 1,300 Earths.

Jupiter is the most beautifully beribboned of the planets, thanks to dynamic magnetic fields and churning weather patterns. It’s also the most lavishly accessorized with orbiting moons — 79 of them, according to NASA’s last count.

The four largest moons can usually be seen through binoculars on clear nights, huddling closely around the planet. They’re the same four moons that astronomer and inventor Galileo spied through his homemade telescope in the early 1600s, eventually revolutionizing our view of gravitation and cosmic mechanics.

Jupiter rises at dusk on Aug. 19 and sets at dawn on Aug. 20, so you’ve got a long, perfect night for viewing the grandest of planets (as long as the weather stays clear).

Take a shower

In between those events, try taking a cosmic shower. The best meteor shower of the year is the Perseids, which have already begun and continue through late August. The nights of Aug. 10-13 are predicted to be the most glittery with comet detritus. That’s what the annual Perseid Meteor Shower really is: a stream of debris yanked away from comet Swift-Tuttle as it follows a 133-year orbit around the sun.

The Perseids are beloved because they’re so reliable, visible and steady — peaking with as many as 150 or more meteors visible per hour. But last year’s shower was muted by moonlight. This year, light from a waxing, crescent moon should not be a conflict. Best viewing is after midnight.

While the Perseid shower originates in the constellation Perseus, meteors radiating out from that point will appear in all parts of the sky.

Sturgeon Moon

On Aug. 22, the full moon will also be directly opposite the sun, from our vantage point. Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region have called this late-August event the Sturgeon Moon, because that’s when those fish were most easily caught.

This moon also qualifies as a blue moon, a label that has only to do with rarity, not with coloring. Since there’s usually one full moon per month, and three full moons per season of the year, the occasional bonus full moon (second in the month or fourth in the season) has taken on that expression of extreme weirdness: “once in a blue moon.”

They’re actually not all that rare, though. Blue moons occur roughly once every 2.5 years, according to NASA. Late August’s full moon fits only the second of these criteria, since the previous full moon was on July 23.

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