Night fallen on a campsite with an illuminated tent and small burning fire

Eyes on the skies — August

Welcome to the Ontario Parks “Eyes on the Skies” series. This space (<– see what we did there?) will cover a wide range of astronomy topics with a focus on what can be seen from the pristine skies found in our provincial parks.

August is here at last with its fine weather, fewer mosquitos, and longer nights. All of the constellations and objects from July are still visible, but there are a few exciting new things to see this month.

Here are our astronomical highlights for August 2021:

The sun

The sun continues its apparent drop in elevation as it approaches next month’s fall equinox (equal light and dark).

For those of us relying on daylight to paddle to that distant lakeside campsite or hike that last ridge before setting up for the evening, knowing when the sun sets is important.

sunset

In August, we see a big change in the amount of daylight. The sun sets around 8:55 pm at the beginning of the month, but by month’s end, it sets almost an hour earlier at 8:05 pm.

Because of the canopy of trees surrounding most campsites, the horizon will be blocked, meaning you will lose the sun about an hour earlier. If you’re travelling around August 31, make sure you finish your hike or paddle by 7:00 pm.

This can shorten our recreation time, but from an astronomy perspective, we gain almost two more hours of darkness to appreciate the night skies.

Sunrise and sunset times

August 1 August 15 August 31
Sunrise 6:08 am 6:26 am 6:45 am
Midday 1:32 pm 1:30 pm 1:25 pm
Sunset 8:55 pm 8:34 pm 8:05 pm

The moon

The moon has long captivated observers of all ages. August lunar phases of the moon occur as follows:

lunar chart

The planets — the return of Saturn and Jupiter

The planets Saturn and Jupiter are gradually rising earlier and earlier bringing them higher in the sky before people turn in for the night.

By mid-month, Saturn rises before 8:00 pm and is almost due south around midnight.

On August 2, Saturn is at Opposition, meaning that it is directly opposite the sun and near its closest to the Earth, which still means is over 1.3 billion kilometres away!

Jupiter follows its celestial neighbour and rises around 8:45 pm, and is almost due south around 2:00 am. Jupiter is at opposition on the night of August 19, and the planet’s larger size and closer distance will make it a fine equal to Saturn’s splendour.

Learn more about these two planets. 

The Perseid meteor shower

About a thousand years ago or so, a comet, Swift-Tuttle, made a visit to the sun, leaving behind much dust and grit in its wake.

In its yearly orbit around the sun, our Earth intersects with this leftover material every August, and gives us a lovely display known as the Perseid meteor shower.

A meteor shower occurs when Earth enters the debris field of a comet that has long ago passed around the sun.

These bits of dust and grit, often no bigger than your thumbnail, enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up high above the ground (see our blog on meteor showers for more information).

This year, the Perseid meteor showers occurs near a waxing crescent moon, which will set relatively early giving us a lovely dark (and hopefully clear) sky to enjoy the many fainter meteors.

The best time to see them is the evening of August 11 into August 12.

Meteor observing, especially good in the dark skies of our provincial parks, is one of the most enjoyable ways to get into astronomy.

Group sits around campfire at night time by lake.

You don’t need any special equipment other than your eyes!

A lounge chair, sleeping bag for warmth, and a buddy are all welcome additions to enjoying the spectacle.

If you take a look at our constellation charts, you can practice learning your constellations while you watch for the meteors.

Featured constellations: an archer, dolphin and a goat

In this month’s featured constellations, we discuss Sagittarius, Capricornus, and Delphinus.

Sky chart for August

This completes our review of the August skies. Come back next month to learn about our galaxy and the stars of September.