The Telescope
























































Saturn came into opposition on June 11th and so will be at its highest elevation due south as darkness falls. It shines initially at magnitude +0.3 falling to +0.4 during the month and has an angular size of ~17 arc seconds. With an angle of 26.8 degrees inclination to the line of sight, the rings are virtually as open as they ever can be. Their maximum tilt, at 27 degrees, will come in October - the first time since 2002. Saturn ceases its westwards, retrograde, motion on August 25th. It is sad that Saturn, now lying in the southern part of Ophiuchus between Sagittarius and Scorpius, only reaches an elevation of ~17 degrees above the horizon when due south, so hindering our view of this most beautiful planet. If imaging Saturn (or Jupiter), Registax 6 has a tool to align the red, green and blue colour images to largely remove atmospheric dispersion from the image. At somewhat over £100 one can purchse the ZWO atmospheric dispersion corrector which uses two, contra rotating, prisms to carry out an even better correction - and which can also be used for visual observing.


Jupiter. Now four months after opposition, Jupiter can still be seen low in the southwestern sky after nightfall. It sets at about 11:30 BST as August begin. As the month progresses its brightness falls from -1.9 to -1.7 magnitudes as its angular size falls from 34 to 32 arc seconds. It lies in Virgo, initially some 8 degrees to the west of Spica, reducing to 4 degrees as the month progresses and will pass Spica on September 11th on its journey towards the lower parts of the ecliptic. Next year it will only reach an elevation of some 25 degrees when due south and, in the following two years, just 18 degrees before it moves back towards the more northerly parts of the ecliptic. Even so, with a small telescope one should easily be able to see the equatorial bands in the atmosphere, sometimes the Great Red Spot and up to four of the Gallilean moons as they weave their way around it.


Mars is hidden in the Sun's glare all month so cannot be observed.
Venus is visible in the east before dawn this month, rising around 3 hours before sunrise. Its magnitude dims slightly during the month from -4 to -3.9 as its angular diameter shrinks from 14.5 to 12.5 arc seconds. However, at the same time, its illuminated phase increases from 74 to 83% - which explains why the magitude does not drop too much. Its elevation before sunrise is greatest on August 2nd when Venus lies close to the open cluster M35 in Gemini.


Mars passed behind the Sun in July, but will be hidden in the Sun's glare all month so cannot be observed.

The Night Sky In and Around Swindon August 2017

Slide Presentation

The following presentation was given at our meeting on the 16th June, 2017 by Rob Slack

The constellation Hercules

Between the constellation Bootes and the bright star Vega in Lyra lies the constellation Hercules.The Red Giant star Alpha Herculis or Ras Algethi, its arabic name, is one of the largest stars known, with a diameter of around 500 times that of our Sun. In common with most giant stars it varies its size, changing in brightness as it does so from 3rd to 4th magnitude. Lying along one side of the "keystone" lies one of the wonders of the skies, the great globular cluster, M13. Just visible to the unaided eye on a dark clear night, it is easily seen through binoculars as a small ball of cotten wool about 1/3 the diameter of the full Moon. The brightness increases towards the centre where the concentration of stars is greatest. It is a most beautiful sight in a small telescope. It contains around 300,000 stars in a region of space 100 light years across, and is the brightest globular cluster that can be seen in the northern hemisphere.

The Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules.
Image by Yuugi Kitahara

The constellation Virgo
Virgo, rising in the east in late evening this month, is not one of the most prominent constellations, containing only one bright star, Spica, but is one of the largest and is very rewarding for those with "rich field" telescopes capable of seeing the many galaxies that lie within its boundaries. Spica is, in fact, an exceedingly close double star with the two B type stars orbiting each other every 4 days. Their total luminosity is 2000 times that of our Sun. In the upper right hand quadrant of Virgo lies the centre of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. There are 13 galaxies in the Messier catalogue in this region, all of which can be seen with a small telescope. The brightest is the giant elliptical galaxy, M87, with a jet extending from its centre where there is almost certainly a massive black hole into which dust and gas are falling. This releases great amounts of energy which powers particles to reach speeds close to the speed of light forming the jet we see. M87 is also called VIRGO A as it is a very strong radio source.

The Giant Elliptical Galaxy M87
Below Porrima and to the right of Spica lies M104, an 8th magnitude spiral galaxy about 30 million light years away from us. Its spiral arms are edge on to us so in a small telescope it appears as an elliptical galaxy. It is also known as the Sombrero Galaxy as it looks like a wide brimmed hat in long exposure photographs.

M104 - The Sombrero Galaxy
August - A good month to observe Neptune with a small telescope

Neptune in Aquarius
Image: Stellarium/IM
Neptune comes into opposition - when it is nearest the Earth - on the 2nd of September, so will be well placed both this month and next. Its magnitude is +7.9 so Neptune, with a disk just 3.7 arc seconds across, is easily spotted in binoculars lying in the constellation Aquarius as shown on the chart. It rises to an elevation of ~27 degrees when due south. Given a telescope of 8 inches or greater aperture and a dark transparent night it should even be possible to spot its moon Triton. (This is my objective around the end of the month!)
The constellation Ursa Major
The stars of the Plough, shown linked by the thicker lines in the chart above, form one of the most recognised star patterns in the sky. Also called the Big Dipper, after the soup ladles used by farmer's wives in America to serve soup to the farm workers at lunchtime, it forms part of the Great Bear constellation - not quite so easy to make out! The stars Merak and Dubhe form the pointers which will lead you to the Pole Star, and hence find North. The stars Alcor and Mizar form a naked eye double which repays observation in a small telescope as Mizar is then shown to be an easily resolved double star. A fainter reddish star forms a triangle with Alcor and Mizar.

Ursa Major contains many interesting "deep sky" objects. The brightest, listed in Messier's Catalogue, are shown on the chart, but there are many fainter galaxies in the region too. In the upper right of the constellation are a pair of interacting galaxies M81 and M82 shown in the image below. M82 is undergoing a major burst of star formation and hence called a "starburst galaxy". They can be seen together using a low power eyepiece on a small telescope.

M81 and M82
Another, and very beautiful, galaxy is M101 which looks rather like a pinwheel firework, hence its other name the Pinwheel Galaxy. It was discovered in1781 and was a late entry to Messier's calalogue of nebulous objects. It is a type Sc spiral galaxy seen face on which is at a distance of about 24 million light years. Type Sc galaxies have a relativly small nucleus and open spiral arms. With an overall diameter of 170,000 light it is one of the largest spirals known (the Milky Way has a diameter of ~ 130,000 light years).

M101 - The Ursa Major Pinwheel Galaxy
Though just outside the constellation boundary, M51 lies close to Alkaid, the leftmost star of the Plough. Also called the Whirlpool Galaxy it is being deformed by the passage of the smaller galaxy on the left. This is now gravitationally captured by M51 and the two will eventually merge. M51 lies at a distance of about 37 million light years and was the first galaxy in which spiral arms were seen. It was discovered by Charles Messier in 1773 and the spiral structure was observed by Lord Rosse in 1845 using the 72" reflector at Birr Castle in Ireland - for many years the largest telescope in the world.

M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy
Lying close to Merak is the planetary nebula M97 which is usually called the Owl Nebula due to its resemblance to an owl's face with two large eyes. It was first called this by Lord Rosse who drew it in 1848 - as shown in the image below right. Planetary nebulae ar the remnants of stars similar in size to our Sun. When all possible nuclear fusion processes are complete, the central core collpses down into a "white dwarf" star and the the outer parts of the star are blown off to form the surrounding nebula.

M97 - The Owl Planetary Nebula

Lord Rosse's 1848 drawing of the Owl Nebula
The mornings of August 12th and 13th - midnight to dawn: look out for the Perseid meteor shower

Looking East at ~1am on the morning of the 13th August
Image: Stellarium/IM
Before dawn on the 20th, Venus will be seen over to the left of a very thin waning crescent Moon. Aldebaran, lying in front of the Hyades Cluster, will also be seen to the upper right of the Moon.
August - Find the globular cluster in Hercules and spot the 'Double-double' in Lyra
There are two very nice objects to spot with binoculars in the eastern sky well after dark this month. Two thirds of the way up the right hand side of the 4 stars that make up the 'keystone' in the constellation Hercules is M13, the best globular cluster visible in the northern sky. The 15 minute exposure image on above was taken by the author using a 127 mm APO refractor and SBIG 8.3 megapixel CCD camera.

Just to the left of the bright star Vega in Lyra is the multiple star system Epsilon Lyrae, often called the double-double. With binoculars a binary star is seen but, when observed with a telescope, each of these two stars is revealed to be a double star - hence the name!

19th August - before dawn: Venus and a thin crescent Moon

Venus and a crescent Moon
Image: Stellarium/IM

Before dawn on the 19th, if clear, Venus will be seen just 2 degrees above a very thin waning crescent Moon.

Compiled by Ian Morison - Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics