Quiet Aurora And Star-Drenched Nights

A very low greenish arc and pale red smudges were all the aurora could muster last night (Aug. 7-8). The Big Dipper (upper) floats above the scene. Credit: Bob King
A low greenish arc and pale red smudges were all the aurora could muster last night (Aug. 7-8). The Big Dipper (upper left) floats above the scene. Credit: Bob King

Like a pot set to simmer that never boils, the aurora never quite bubbled up into easy viewing last night. It was there alright, so long as you had dark skies and could see down to the northern horizon. I watched it on and off for an hour and a half while hunting globular clusters in the telescope. Looking ahead, we’re expecting a couple of quiet nights aurora-wise.

Amateurs observe Saturn and Mars at Hobbs Observatory at twilight Saturday, site of the annual Northwoods Starfest. Credit: Bob King
Amateurs observe Saturn and Mars at Hobbs Observatory, site of the annual Northwoods Starfest, at dusk Saturday evening. Star parties like Starfest are a great way to meet other amateur astronomers and see everything the night sky has to offer through telescopes of all sizes and types. Credit: Bob King

The past weekend I attended the annual Northwoods Starfest put on by the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS) near Eau Claire, Wis. and spent many wonderful hours in a semi-conscious state of wakefulness well known to amateur astronomers who fight biorhythms to track down one more star cluster. We had clear skies and no mosquitos both nights of the gathering. Perfect.

The unmistakeable triangle of Mars, Saturn and Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius, dominates the southern sky in early August. Mars has resumed moving to the east (left) after spending the early part of the summer in retrograde motion. Credit: Bob King
The unmistakeable triangle of Mars, Saturn and Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius, dominates the southern sky in this photo made on August 6. Mars has resumed moving to the east (left) after spending the early part of the summer in retrograde motion. Credit: Bob King

Front and center in the southern sky was the eye-catching trio of Mars, Antares and Saturn. The varied movements of the planets in relation to the star and each other over the past months have created nearly every kind of triangle from scalene to obtuse. Attention geometry teachers — there’s a lesson here!

Outside of the Milky Way, it’s the most compelling sight in the summer sky. Watch tonight and tomorrow night as Mars slides just ¾° under the bright star Dschubba (JOOB-a) in the head of Scorpius the scorpion. Also known as Delta Scorpii, the star ordinarily shines around magnitude +2.2, but in July 2000 it underwent an eruption and began to rise in brightness, reaching +1.5. For a time, it nearly rivaled Antares. The outburst shot material into space that developed into a bright disk around the star. The fireworks aren’t over. Dschubba is still brighter than normal at +1.8 and continues to vary. With Mars nearby, it’s easy to identify and keep an eye on for future changes.

Beauty sight -- the crescent moon and Jupiter Friday night Aug. 5. Credit: Bob King
Beauty sight — the crescent moon with a hint of earthshine hangs below Jupiter Friday night Aug. 5. Credit: Bob King

The moon and Jupiter also put on a nice show with a pretty conjunction on Friday evening. The next moon-planet gathering will occur on August 11 when the gibbous moon glides near Mars and Saturn morphing the triangle into a trapezoid of bright celestial gems. August 11-12 is also the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower, a topic we’ll take up tomorrow.

Mike, the one-eyed alien from Monsters Inc., showed up at Starfest, too. Credit: Bob King
Mike, the one-eyed alien from Monsters Inc., showed up at Starfest ready for mischief. Credit: Bob King

After great company, ideal dark skies, good food, lively lectures and avalanches of laughter, I feel fully recharged. Well, maybe not the sleep part yet, but a good nap should solve that.