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THE NIGHT SKY OVER SAUK COUNTY COLUMN: Jupiter and Saturn at their best
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THE NIGHT SKY OVER SAUK PRAIRIE

THE NIGHT SKY OVER SAUK COUNTY COLUMN: Jupiter and Saturn at their best

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The two largest of the giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are the ones to watch in August. Both reach opposition this month, when they’re opposite the sun in our sky, rising at sunset and setting at sunrise, allowing sky watchers to view them all night long.

Saturn reaches opposition first, on Aug. 2, while Jupiter reaches opposition on Aug. 20. The moon, at nearly full phase, passes Saturn on Aug. 20 and Jupiter on Aug. 21, before becoming the Full Sturgeon Moon at 7:01 a.m. on Aug. 22.

If you watch the moons of Jupiter through a telescope, you may occasionally be able to spot one of the dark shadows cross in front of the planet. On Aug. 19, Io and its shadow spend roughly two hours, from about 9-11 pm, crossing in front of Jupiter. Europa crosses Jupiter during this same general timeframe on Aug. 11. Can you spot moon shadows crossing on other dates?

Six times in August Jupiter has “double shadow transits” when two of its moons’ shadows are crossing the face of the planet at the same time. On Aug. 8, there’s a rare triple shadow transit, when three shadows cross at the same time, but unfortunately for us, those events happen either in daylight or when Jupiter and its moons are below the horizon. The next triple shadow transit will be Oct. 18, 2025, and that one won’t be visible from our part of the world either. The year 2032 gives us our next shot to see a triple shadow transit from Wisconsin.

The inner planets are huddling near the sun making them not visible, with the exception of Venus, low on the western horizon after sunset. The crescent moon passes Venus on Aug. 10 and 11.

Perseid meteor shower

One of the favorite stargazing events of the summer is always the Perseid meteor shower. It’s the only really active annual meteor shower during summer months. Perseid meteors can be spotted anytime from July 17-Aug. 24, but the peak of activity, when up to 90 meteors an hour can be witnessed under dark skies, is overnight from Aug. 12-13.

A 23% illuminated crescent moon on Aug. 12 means that not too much moonlight will wash out the fainter meteors, making for a better show. The moon sets around 11 p.m., leaving skies nice and dark.

The meteors that we see are tiny pieces of dust and pebbles left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. You might see a Perseid meteor at any place in the sky. To be sure it’s a Perseid meteor and not a sporadic meteor, just trace its trail back to where it seemed to come from, and if you end up by the constellation Perseus, you know you’ve got a Perseid.

Perseus is already rising in the east as the sun sets. By midnight, if you can spot the easily identifiable W shape of Cassiopeia, look below it toward the horizon to see the constellation Perseus. While you’re out looking, grab a pair of binoculars and look between the string of stars in Perseus and the W in Cassiopeia to find two groupings of stars close together known as the famous Double Cluster.

Kelly Kizer Whitt fell in love with astronomy while a student at Sauk Prairie High School, earned her degree at UW-Madison and shares her love with this column.

Kelly Kizer Whitt fell in love with astronomy while a student at Sauk Prairie High School, earned her degree at UW-Madison and shares her love with this column.

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Sauk Prairie will get a glimpse of one of the two eclipses that will occur over the next thirty days. The total solar eclipse is only visible over the Atlantic Ocean ending toward the North Pole on March 20, and the total lunar eclipse is best seen in western North America on April 4. However, the partial phase of the lunar eclipse will greet those who rise before the sun on the morning of April 4.

The Full Moon occurs on April 4 at 7:05 a.m., but the moon sets just before this, around 6:40 a.m., as the partial eclipse is ongoing. The partial phase begins around 5:17 a.m., as the moon slips into the deeper part of Earth’s shadow and begins to turn a bit red. The moon will become close to completely eclipsed around 6:34 a.m., just as it is setting. This will make for a strange and wondrous view for those awaking to the day to find a “blood red” moon setting in the west.

At the same time that the moon is setting, the sun is rising in the east. Sunrise will continue to arrive earlier every morning and sunset later every evening from the spring equinox on March 20 through June. Spring arrives precisely on March 20 at 5:45 p.m.

Spring planets and constellations

On March 21, a day after the new moon and eclipse graces the far north, a crescent moon returns to the sky just after sunset. The moon will be right beside Mars, and the next night the moon rises a bit higher to float beside Venus. On March 29 the moon will be high in the sky and not far from Jupiter. The moon and Saturn keep close quarters around April 8, but they don’t rise until after midnight.

Back in the west, Venus draws attention as it shines at magnitude -4 and stays above the horizon for three hours. In early April, Venus closes in on the star cluster the Pleiades in the constellation Taurus. This grouping of stars is setting in the west while the spring constellations rise in the east. Leo, Virgo, and Libra rise up from the horizon, carrying along a slew of distant galaxies that can be viewed through large telescopes. Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, is taking on its spring look, with the bowl of the dipper turning upside down as it sends spring showers to Earth.

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