August is a month for moon gazing

As July closes, we turn our attention to the goings-on in the early August skies. This is a refrigerator-magnet column: Get out your scissors and highlighter!

On the night of Sunday, Aug. 3, the first-quarter moon gets very close (visually, not for real!), to the planet Saturn. Observers from India to Australia will have a chance to see the moon blink out Saturn from view; in the Carolinas, it is a near miss, and the timing is off half a day. It will be best seen at dusk that night, low (20 degrees, or two fist-widths at arm’s length) above the southwest horizon. Saturn will be to the left of the moon and Mars to the right.

On Sunday, Aug. 10, the full moon will appear to be the largest of the year. This variation in apparent size is due to the moon’s elliptical orbit, which causes its distance from Earth to vary by about 10 percent. So, it’s not going to look gigantic, like that “big pizza pie” Dean Martin sang about.

There will be media hype calling it a “supermoon.” When I first encountered that term a few years ago, decades after starting my career in astronomy, I thought it was suspicious. A Google Trends search indeed showed the term was apparently invented in early 2011.

That close-up moon does bring extra-large tides, so those going to our beaches should take note. Perhaps there will be “supersurfing” and “superfishing.”

That bright moonlight will interfere with the Perseid meteor shower that peaks two nights later on Tuesday, Aug. 12. Maybe you can catch a few shooting stars before the moon rises and starts to wash out the sky. There will be other good showers in October and December with darker skies.

Speaking of meteor showers, my apologies for the no-show of the Camelopardalids, the new shower predicted for the night of May 23-24. Small showers were apparently seen in some locations, but they were not as great as anticipated. I stared at the sky for a few hours and did not see a single shower meteor. In fact, our group only saw two nonshower meteors, well below the half-dozen or so meteors you should see on any night.

Finally, if you have never done so, get to dark skies – about 10 p.m. and away from city lights – sometime around the next new moon, which is coming Aug. 24-25. Take a look at the summer Milky Way, that band of light that is our galaxy, seen from overhead to its bright center in the southern sky. It will be worth the trip!

Daniel B. Caton is a physics and astronomy professor and director of observatories at Appalachian State University. Email: More on this month’s column: