August Skies Set To Dazzle
August is shaping up to be a great month for stargazing, with or without a telescope. Celestial wonders such as a Perseid meteor shower and a Super Blue Moon will take place soon. Saturn will also be lit up for the remainder of August, and should be visible to the naked eye on a clear night.
Joining Ira to talk about what we can see this month in the night sky is astronomer, author, and podcaster Dean Regas. Regas also talks about recently leaving his long tenure at the Cincinnati Observatory, and what’s next for his love for astronomy.
Dean Regas is outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory and co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers in Cincinnati, Ohio.
IRA FLATOW: For the rest of the hour, we’re going to turn our attention to the skies because August is shaping up to be a great month for stargazing, planet gazing, meteor gazing. There’s going to be a meteor shower, a blue moon. Saturn is in opposition– all kinds of cool stuff. And who better to tell us all about that than a SciFri stalwart, Dean Regas, astronomer, author, podcaster in Cincinnati, Ohio. Welcome back, Dean.
DEAN REGAS: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Looks like a really busy month here.
DEAN REGAS: Huge month. I mean, we’re going to start off with a meteor shower this weekend called the Perseids. And this is, to me, one of the best ones of the year because it starts a little earlier in the evening than some of the other ones, and it’s in August, which is way better than being up late at night in November and December for those other meteor showers. So the Perseids is going to be really great.
IRA FLATOW: OK. So for people who have never done this, how do you become a meteor shower observer?
DEAN REGAS: Well, so the first thing I always tell people is to lower your expectations. Do not expect a laser Floyd light show or something up in the sky. Meteors are notoriously fickle, so you can’t exactly predict how many will go from time to time. But to give you the best chances of seeing the most number of shooting stars, get away from the city lights as much as possible. Get out to the country if you can.
And the peak time is going to be the nights of the 12th, and the 13th, and the 14th. Those are the peak nights. You don’t have to be on– you can pick any of those and be about the same. And then you have to watch really late at night. So the real peak is usually 2:00 to 5:00 AM, but you can catch some earlier ones at 10:00 PM to midnight, that kind of thing.
So just face northeast early on. Get a lawn chair, get a drink, kick back, relax. You don’t need a telescope or anything. And just see how many shooting stars you can see.
IRA FLATOW: So that’s actually this weekend coming up.
DEAN REGAS: Exactly, exactly. And so the moon is also going to be out of the way. So the moonlight can affect the number of stars or number of shooting stars you see. So with the moon near its new phase, you won’t have that in the way, so it makes it an ideal time.
IRA FLATOW: Really? OK. Tell us what is a– why do you have a meteor shower?
DEAN REGAS: Well, so meteor showers like this one, the Perseids, are all caused by comets. So a comet goes by, leaves its tail behind, the cometary debris. And so then the Earth will swing around the sun and run into those remnants of these comets. And we can predict about every year this happens.
And so the comet in question for this one is called Swift-Tuttle. And so you’re seeing these cometary pieces burning up in the atmosphere. And these are really light particles, so they’re pretty much ices and dusts the size of the grain of sand.
But they heat up so fast that they make these shooting stars. And then you go, ooh, and aah, and that kind of thing. And that’s where it comes from.
IRA FLATOW: And this happens periodically with a lot of– right? We have lots of meteor showers, but this is a good one, you’re saying.
DEAN REGAS: Yeah. So the other ones that are pretty solid performers are the Leonids, which is in November, the Orionids, which are in October. And the Orionids are fun because they’re remnants of Halley’s comet.
And then in December, right around December 13 or so, then you have ones called the Geminids. So those are the four main really good ones. So Perseids, though, this year has a little edge because the moon’s out of the way, so that makes the Perseids a little extra nice.
IRA FLATOW: You say to take out a lawn chair. I remember when I was a kid, I would just lie in the back of the hood of my car.
DEAN REGAS: That’s the best way to do it because you want to take in as much sky as you possibly can. And well, with my car, it gets the hood pretty hot. So if you’re up late at night, it keeps you warm too. That’s a great way to do it.
But you don’t need binoculars. You don’t need a telescope. You want to see as much of the sky as possible, and that’s how you can see the most meteors.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And I think that turns people off. They think, well, I don’t have a binoculars or a telescope, so I can’t see it. But you don’t need it.
DEAN REGAS: Oh, absolutely not. And that’s what’s so amazing about these meteor showers is it’s open to everybody. And you might see some strays even the week after, the week before the peaks. So you don’t have to be there right at that night, but it does help a little bit. But the big thing that I always read about is the estimates of how many meteors you’re going to see.
And always, whenever you read them, whatever it is, divide by 5. It’s going to be a lot less than they predict. So I would say a good meteor shower is where you can see about one shooting star every five minutes or so– so maybe 12 an hour. 20 an hour is really good. But then if you get to some magical moments where you see a whole bunch, then you’ll really remember that.
IRA FLATOW: I recall seeing them coming out of the corner of your eye sometimes. They’re not in your center point focal point.
DEAN REGAS: Yeah, yeah. So this meteor shower is called the Perseids because it’s named after the constellation Perseus, which is where the meteors seem to radiate from. But they can come from any direction.
Just most of them will come in that direction of where Perseus is in the sky. But yeah, so that’s why you want to take in as much of the sky as possible. I recommend pointing your chair to the northeast early on in the night and then more towards the south later on in the night.
IRA FLATOW: You know what I’ve been watching, I saw this the other night, and I said, what is this? There are all these new satellites up there. There are thousands of new satellites, and you can see them crossing the sky. And you say, could that be a satellite? And it is, right?
DEAN REGAS: Oh, there are so many satellites up there. I mean, the International Space Station is the most famous one because it is so incredibly bright. And so any time you’re doing your stargazing, chances are, you’re going to happen upon one that’s just slowly going across the sky. And so for anybody doing some satellite watching, you just look for a slow-moving, non-blinking light.
So they won’t blink and twinkle, and it takes about six minutes for it to go from one horizon to the other. And then you add on the new communication satellites, the Starlink satellites, which are coming in like UFO reports. I mean, you see these trains of lights in the sky, and you think World War III is happening. So for everybody out there, if you see a train of satellites, a train of lights, that’s probably the Starlink satellites.
IRA FLATOW: That is cool. OK, let’s move on to another event happening this month, a super blue moon– once in a blue moon. What’s the significance here?
DEAN REGAS: Wow. We got a few things lining up here. And for astronomers– I got to be honest, Ira– for astronomers, these are two non-events. But the public loves it, and I have come around to loving these too. So supermoon is when the moon is slightly closer to the Earth than average, and so the moon will look a little bit bigger because it’s actually is– looks a little bigger because it’s a lot closer.
And so at first I thought, this supermoon thing is silly. Can people really tell the difference? And you can. During a supermoon, the moon is about 30% brighter than when it’s farther away from us– so what I like to call puny moon. But the supermoon, it is pretty cool.
And so people like to go out and watch this. And I think I’ve really come around because I’ve seen people just make it a night where they go sit on the lawn somewhere and watch a moon rise together with the whole family and friends. And it’s a really cool time to watch this because I don’t think a lot of people take the time to watch a moon rise. So I’m all in for it.
And this one just happens to be a blue moon as well, which is a more made-up term also. This is when you have two full moons in one month. So we had a full moon on the 1st of August, and then this one will be August 30, 31. That’ll make it a blue moon. It doesn’t actually turn blue, but it does help with the publicity for it, I’d say.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and it’s a rare event, right? That’s like “once in a blue moon.”
DEAN REGAS: That’s right. You can only have two full moons in a month very rarely because the moon phase cycle is about 29.5 days. So you get a full moon on August 1– that’s pretty rare– and then back again at the end of the month. But yeah, it doesn’t turn an actual color, and it will look pretty similar. But at least this month, it’ll be super too.
IRA FLATOW: Wow, there you go, two for the price of one. Let’s move on to one of my favorite subjects and my favorite times, and that is when Saturn is so well positioned you can see it. It’s terrific to try to look at it. And that’s now.
DEAN REGAS: Yeah, we’re coming up to what’s called Saturn’s Opposition. That’s when it’s on the opposite side of the sky from the sun. And that means it’s the closest to the Earth for the year, and it rises right after the sun goes down. So you get to see it right in prime time.
And Saturn is the faintest of the naked-eye planets, but you can see this without a telescope. And it just looks like an ordinary yellowish star that doesn’t really twinkle very much. But then when you aim a telescope at it, even a small backyard telescope, your eyes are just– oh, it’s like you can’t believe what you’re seeing. You see this little tiny thing with a ring around it.
IRA FLATOW: I’m with you on this one.
DEAN REGAS: It is amazing to see Saturn with a telescope. It just looks teeny tiny. It looks like a cartoon that somebody drew. And it’s one of those things that I totally want everybody to go make it a point this fall to go out there and see Saturn in a scope.
So peak time is pretty much starting at the end of the month of August, all the way through the end of the year. And so Saturn season is kicking off. I’m excited.
IRA FLATOW: Me too because, as you say, it’s indescribable, right?
DEAN REGAS: Oh, yes.
IRA FLATOW: You can see it on TV or whatever. But until you see it in that eyepiece, you go, whoa.
DEAN REGAS: Yeah, people swear that we put a sticker on the end of the telescope. It is that perfect.
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS]
DEAN REGAS: I call it breathtakingly beautiful because you gasp when you look at it because it just doesn’t look real. And I try to picture myself as the early astronomers in the 1600s seeing this thing. And it just had to blow their minds.
IRA FLATOW: And the fact that it’s going to be going into the winter or toward the fall where the air may be crisper and clearer– that’s good. That’s good for viewing, right?
DEAN REGAS: Yeah, the last few years, it’s been really low in the Southern sky and mostly in the summer. So every year, it pushes back the time frame a little bit. So it’s heading into being more visible in the fall sky, which also puts it farther North for us northern hemisphere viewers and makes it a little bit easier to find.
But then we’ve got Jupiter joining it a little later on in the year. Late September, early October, Jupiter will join the dance. And the two of them, Saturn and Jupiter together, are, by far, the two best planets to see in a telescope.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, if you want to see the moons of Jupiter just like Galileo saw them, it’s very easy to do that if you have a little telescope. And it’s fantastic. There’s something else happening this month, which I know is near and dear to your heart, and that is the anniversary of Pluto Demotion Day. How many years has it been? It seems like yesterday.
DEAN REGAS: Oh, my gosh. I know, we think of the loss of Pluto as a planet as a generational thing. And a lot of people are still mad about Pluto’s lack of planethood status. But it was 17 years ago, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: No, no.
DEAN REGAS: Can you believe it? 17 years ago, Pluto was demoted, or at least reclassified. So it’s not a widely celebrated holiday, but Pluto Demotion Day is near and dear to my heart because I wrote a book about this called How to teach Grown-ups about Pluto to walk traumatized adults through the loss of a planet. It’s an illustrated guide to the history of Pluto and the future of Pluto too.
So it’s a lot of fun. I have a lot of fun with the Pluto Demotion Day because I think it’s so great to debate this. What is a planet? What’s not a planet? Everybody wins in that debate, in my opinion.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, that’s true. Are you going to be celebrating it in some way?
DEAN REGAS: Oh, I always celebrate Pluto Demotion Day. I’ve been visiting around with other observatories. And I was up at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin talking about Pluto. And there’s still people that are like, oh, Pluto is a planet, and all this stuff, and others that are like, oh, yeah, we’re over that.
And of course, at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, that’s where Pluto was discovered. And they get really into it. They have an I Heart Pluto festival every February when Pluto was discovered in 1930 there. And so I have my rival anniversary of Pluto Demotion Day. So I always like to play the villain when I go to Lowell Observatory.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Well, speaking about traveling, you’ve been on Science Friday for so many years, and listeners would know you as the astronomer for the Cincinnati Observatory. But you’ve recently moved on. Tell us about that. You’re staying in the astronomy world, right?
DEAN REGAS: Oh, absolutely, yeah. So I left my position at the astronomer at Cincinnati observatory and of wanted to branch out a little bit more. I wanted to do astronomy out in the world. And I’ve been doing a lot of programs with the National parks because the National parks have done some tremendous strides to improve their nighttime programming and getting people out there under a really dark sky. So I’m hoping to continue working with them.
I’m going to be going back out to the Grand Canyon. I was the astronomer residence there, doing a month-long stint with the Grand Canyon. I’ll be going back out in September. So I’m really looking forward to having a little more time to travel, write more books, and get ready for two really awesome solar eclipses coming up. We were talking about that earlier, and I just can’t wait for these eclipses.
IRA FLATOW: Remind us again when they’re coming up.
DEAN REGAS: Yeah, so the first one is the one that’s under the radar is the October 14, 2023– so just a few months away. And we’re going to have a partial solar eclipse where part of the sun will be blocked out. But certain parts of the United States will get to see an annular eclipse. That means the moon will be too far away from the Earth and won’t block the whole sun. It’s a really cool event, but you still need to have all your equipment, your safety goggles, and all that stuff.
But then the big event, the main one is the total solar eclipse going across the country on April 8, 2024. So everybody, mark your calendars for these two really cool dates. And I think it’s going to be the story of the year next year.
IRA FLATOW: Is it going to be easy to see?
DEAN REGAS: Yeah. So the annular eclipse in October is a little trickier because you need to have those eclipse glasses. So I’m recommending everybody to get all your equipment by that date because then you can have everything before it sells out. And then you can also practice. With very minimal equipment, you can actually take pictures of solar eclipses as well.
And then for the total one, this is going to be going across from Texas up through the Midwest, up through New York upstate and even parts of Canada. So it’s something like half of the population of the United States is within a day’s drive of totality. So it is going to be awesome to do. It’s going to be like a big festival.
And so everybody, you heard it from me. Take off the day of work. I’ll send you an astronomer note. I’ll get you out of work April 8 next year.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Dean, I hope you will always be available to come on our show. We’ve enjoyed you over the years and look only for bigger and better things from you.
DEAN REGAS: Oh, absolutely. I always love talking with you all. And everybody out there, just keep looking up.
IRA FLATOW: Dean Regas, astronomer, author, and podcaster based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Before we go, we need to say goodbye to a self-described space cadet. Ozzie Osband was a fixture at rocket launches at Cape Canaveral only a few miles from his home in Titusville, Florida. And he was an ambassador for the Space Coast– the region’s area code, 321. Of course, yeah, that was his idea, as he told StoryCorps back in 2008.
OZZIE OSBAND: I went there and explained that Cape Canaveral, the countdown capital, should have area code 321. So I figured, I asked for it, they approved it. It must be my area code, but I share.
IRA FLATOW: Along with his love for space, he was also a longtime volunteer at WMFE, his local public radio station. Ozzie Osband was 72 years old.