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August Nights


August bring its rewards:  usually, much better, night-sky viewing; unique planetary alignments; Northern-Lights; special-lunar viewings; meteor showers, and an International-Space-Station (ISS). 

Venus, usually referred to as the “Evening Star” becomes visible in the west as the sun sets. It is followed by Mercury, Saturn,  Mars, and Jupiter and all can be seen with the naked eye. Often referred to as the "Cardinal Climax", this unusual configuration is frequently used to indicate the end of a significant series of historical events as well as the time of new beginnings.  In the early evening, you may get a brief glimpse of the ISS near the Southern horizon thanks to the setting sun's reflection.

As the evening progresses, the constellations make their appearance against the backdrop of night stars. For centuries, star-gazers have watched them wend their way through the maze of stars. Most were named by the early Greeks and Romans. They were able to pick out figures such  as horses, fish, bears, crowns, and other features that were prominent in daily life.  Astrologers focus on twelve zodiac configurations, while astronomers, have agreed to about 88 identifiable groupings.

Ursa Major, commonly referred to as the Big Dipper received its nick-name in the early days of North America as farmer’s wives identified it with the main utensil used to dip water, and other beverages, for  the workers. It also came to prominence as the  way to locate Polaris, the North Star. If you follow the direction of the two stars that form the end of the bucket, they will lead you to Polaris.  Polaris can also be found by locating the Little Dipper, with  the key star being the tail of the handle of Ursa Minor.

As darkness deepens, more stars appear, including the Milky Way, a collection of 200-300 billion stars that form the two spiraling arms of our galaxy.

Perhaps you will see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) which will be the strongest this August, mainly because of the extra bursts of solar flares hitting our atmosphere, and visible much further South than usual. Many adults recall childhood stories about the lights being reflected sunlight from ice bergs being tipped by polar bears in the Far North! Over time, the stories changed to scientific reports of solar flares (strong streams of magnetic energy from the sun) encountering the earth’s atmosphere. The result is a  fascinating array of moving colours.

"Stars" that appear to move at a dignified pace are the man-made satellites continuously circling the earth.  Many are used for military-and-defense purposes but most, I believe, are for improved-worldwide communication, and weather reporting. They are also seen, thanks to reflected sunlight.   All are named and can be researched on the internet.

August brings the Full Moon (often referred to as Corn Moon, Green-Corn Moon, or Sturgeon Moon, the names being a throwback to the early Celtic and Native-North-American traditions of being connected to Mother-Nature's cycles.   Occasionally there are four full moons in a season. The third full moon in the season, or the second in the month, is often referred to as the Blue Moon.  In August, light  is refracted differently , causing the moon to appear reddish, and it is often referred to as the Blood Moon.  Full Moons used to be known as the “poor man’s lantern” as it allowed farming, and other activities, late into the evening.

 

One of the traditional highlights of the month is the Perseid Meteorite showers of mid-August. This year, the main concentration appears just before dawn on August 12, but the "action" starts a few days before and continues for a few days after. As they appear in conjunction with the celebration of the Feast of St. Lawrence, they are often referred to as the Tears of St. Lawrence. (See TI Life History page.) 

While the appearance of shooting, or falling, stars  suggests a large size, each can be  less in size than a grain of sand.  Small particles of dust and debris, being carried by the Swift-Tuttle Comet, come into collision with the upper layers of the earth’ s atmosphere each August.  They seem to originate, but do not, in the Perseids Cluster so they have become known as the Perseids.

During the day we often see contrails (streams of water vapour) which indicate that the atmosphere cannot, quickly, absorb the jet's vapour.

Enjoy August for it signals a coming change-of-season.

By Jamie Morrison

Jamie Morrison is a retired, school principal. He received his 'sea legs' with the Royal Canadian Naval Air Arm in the early '60's and has captained boats on the St. Lawrence, Rideau, and Ottawa Rivers.  He has written for the Brockville Recorder and Times and the Toronto Telegram. His novel, Dangerous Current in which the action takes place in the Thousand Islands, is scheduled for release this Fall.

Click here for:  How to see a shooting star

We highly recommend the Evening Sky Map series. Available online here.

 Patron Saint of the St. Lawrence, by Jim Morrison

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