5 Sky Events This Week: Cosmic Teapot Steams While Neptune Hits Prime Time

This wide-angle view toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy shows the teapot shape of the stars in the constellation Sagittarius. The central region of the galaxy is obscured from sight by intervening gas, dust clouds, and stars. Credit: David Talent/NOAO/AURA/NSF

With a moonless night on tap early this week, deep-sky delights, a comet heading for Mars, and a blue giant at its best offer themselves up for sky-gazers.

Spying Sagittarius. With a new moon on Monday, August 25, dark skies offer a great time to check out the Milky Way steaming out of a giant “teapot” in the sky.

Look toward the low southern horizon on any clear night this week and catch sight of a mythical beast, the centaur archer Sagittarius, thanks to an easy-to-spot pattern of stars. Never rising high in the summer night sky for those in the northern latitudes, the zodiacal constellation Sagittarius is easy to track down—even from city suburbs—thanks to its pattern of stars that mark a giant celestial teapot.

This wide-angle map of the southern sky after nightfall late August shows the location of the constellation Sagittarius and its cosmic teapot. The Milk yWay appears to rise from the teapot's spout like steam. Best seen from dark location away from city lights.  Credit: SkySafari
This wide-angle map of the southern sky after nightfall in late August shows the location of the constellation Sagittarius and its cosmic teapot. The Milky Way appears to rise from the teapot’s spout like steam. Credit: SkySafari

While tracing the entire constellation might take some imagination, it’s pretty easy to trace the familiar form of a star-studded teapot, complete with handle, lid, and spout. To find Sagittarius, use Antares, the brightest star in the southern night sky, as a guidepost, and look due east (or left) of this brilliant orange star. And don’t forget to take out those binoculars or a small scope and cruise around the teapot for a plethora of deep-sky treasures such as the gas clouds and star clusters studding the entire region.

Look carefully above the spout of the teapot and you will notice what looks like cosmic “steam” wafting up into the heavens. That in fact is the ghostly glow of millions of stars that make up the Milky Way, our home galaxy.

Comet Siding Spring. Sky-watchers using binoculars and telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere can preview comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1). The icy visitor will brush by Mars later this fall.

Starting Thursday, August 28, the comet will pass by a series of deep-sky wonders and make for a fine astrophotographic opportunity for the more experienced sky hounds.

First, on Thursday evening, the comet will pose with the globular cluster NGC 362, then on Friday, August 29, it will slide next to the Small Magellanic Cloud, one of our Milky Way’s companion dwarf galaxies.

Finally, Siding Spring will pay a visit to the bright globular cluster called 47 Tucanae.

This is a simulated view of comet Siding-Spring gliding past the Small Magellanic Cloud and 47 Tuscane globular cluster this week. Credit: SkySafari
A simulated wide-angle binocular view of comet Siding Spring gliding past the Small Magellanic Cloud and 47 Tucanae globular cluster this week. Courtesy of SkySafari

Neptune peaks. On Friday, August 29, Neptune, the eighth and last major planet in the solar system, reaches opposition. That means the gas giant is opposite the sun in our sky, so it will be visible all night long. Opposition also marks the planet’s closest approach to Earth, which makes it brighter to our eyes than at any other time.

Over the next few weeks, Neptune will reside some 2.7 billion miles (4.3 billion kilometers) away from Earth. That is so distant that reflected sunlight off its icy cloud tops takes nearly four hours to reach us.

General sky map showing the constellation Aquarius, the home of the planet Neptune as it hits opposition in 2014. Credit: SkySafari
This general sky map shows the constellation Aquarius, the home of Neptune, as the planet hits opposition in 2014. Credit: SkySafari

It’s this distance, however, that makes it a bit of challenge to track down. At magnitude 7.8, it is out of reach of the naked eye, but can be glimpsed with binoculars or a small telescope using high power.

Neptune lies in the constellation Aquarius, less than one degree northeast of the 5th magnitude star, Sigma Aquarii. Look for a tiny blue-gray disk among the background of faint stars in the region.

This detailed finder's chart shows the view through binoculars of the star field around Neptune.  The 5th magnitude star Sigma Aquarii acts as a guidepost to finding fainter the fainter planet.  Credit: SkySafari
A detailed finder’s chart shows the view through binoculars of the star field around Neptune. The 5th magnitude star Sigma Aquarii acts as a guidepost to finding the fainter planet. Courtesy of SkySafari

 Moon meets Spica. Also on Friday, just as dusk sets in, look for the razor-thin crescent moon posing just above Spica low in the southwest.  

This illustration shows the waxing crescent moon perched above the bright Virgo star Spica at dusk low in the southwestern sky on Saturday, August 30. Credit: SkySafari
This illustration shows the waxing crescent moon perched above the bright Virgo star Spica at dusk low in the southwestern sky on Saturday, August 30. Courtesy of SkySafari

The cosmic duo will appear only 2 degrees apart, a little more than the width of your thumb at arm’s length.

Trio of worlds. About a half hour after sunset on Sunday, August 31, the moon rises higher in the sunset sky and joins a planetary pair for a pretty photo opportunity.

This sky illustration shows the moon forming a triangular pattern with Mars and Saturn after sunset on Sunday, August 31. Credit: SkySafari
This illustration shows the moon forming a triangular pattern with Mars and Saturn after sunset on Sunday, August 31. Credit: SkySafari

Look for a stunning triangular formation consisting of Mars, Saturn, and the waxing crescent moon hanging halfway up the southwestern sky as dusk sets in.

What a way to end the day!

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Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.