The Stars: August

In 1974, Frank Drake, director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, had completed the task of resurfacing the world's biggest radio telescope. This enormous dish, 300 metres across, was now the most powerful on Earth. How to celebrate its switch-on?

His PA had the bright idea: "Use the telescope in reverse to beam a message about life on Earth to the stars." Drake's team worked on a coded message, a series on on-off pulses. It was beamed towards M13, a globular cluster of stars in the rather obscure constellation of Hercules. This dense ball of stars, which looks like a swarm of bees, lies 25,000 light years away. So if ET hears the message and picks up the phone, we can expect a reply in about 50,000 years!

Globular clusters are the oldest denizens of our Galaxy. They form an outer "scaffold" surrounding the Milky Way, each containing thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of ancient red stars. Most globulars are only visible through binoculars or a telescope. M13 is a rare exception: on a clear night you can glimpse it with the naked eye, as a small fuzzy patch of light. Hercules is home to another globular cluster, M92, not far from M13.

What's Up

We have our own earthbound fireworks in November, and the French and Americans theirs in July, but the sky puts on its best display of pyrotechnics in August. This year the show will be especially spectacular as that light-polluting spoilsport, the Moon, is below the horizon. Any time in the first three weeks of the month, you may spot a shooting star zipping across the sky from the constellation Perseus. The show reaches a crescendo on the night of 12-13 August, when we may be treated to a meteor every minute or two. These shooting stars are specks of cosmic dirt shed by Comet Swift-Tuttle as it traipses around the solar system, and burn up as they hit the Earth's atmosphere. The dust motes are travelling in parallel paths, but perspective makes them seem to spread out from a point in Perseus (see chart).

The first three weeks of August also treat us to a planetary dance, low in the West after sunset. The leader is brilliant Venus, and at the start of the month the fainter planets Mars and Saturn lie to its upper left. The slender crescent Moon joins the planetary frolic on 12 and 13 August.

Later in the evening, giant planet Jupiter dominates the eastern skies, shining among the dull stars below the flying horse, Pegasus. High in the south you'll find the Summer Triangle, its corners marked by the bright stars Deneb, Altair and Vega. Down on the southern horizon, look out for orange-red Antares, marking the heart of the scorpion, Scorpius. And to its left lies the celestial archer, Sagittarius – which to our eyes looks far more like a teapot!

Diary

3: 5.58 am Moon at Last Quarter

7: Mercury at greatest elongation east

10: 4.08 am New Moon

12/13: Maximum of Perseid meteor shower

16: 7.14 pm Moon at First Quarter

20: Venus at greatest elongation east

24: 6.04 pm Full Moon

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Project Administrator

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Administrator is requ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn