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Stories in the Summer Sky

by Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs | 01 August 2023

by Geoff Chester, USNO Public Affairs | 01 August 2023

Scorpius (and Maui's Fish Hook) on the horizon, imaged 2014 May 24 from Morattico, Virginia
with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR

The Moon wanes in the late evening and early morning sky this week, gradually climbing northward along the ecliptic as she moves through autumn’s dim constellations.  Last Quarter occurs on the 8th at 6:28 am Eastern Daylight Time.  Look for Luna near yellow-hued Saturn on the evenings of the evenings of the 2nd and 3rd.  The Moon ends the week in the company of bright Jupiter before sunrise on the 8th.

As we mentioned last week, August 1st is Lammas, one of the four ancient “cross-quarter” days in the seasonal calendar.  As such, it marks the approximate mid-point of astronomical summer.  It’s also the time when the days are becoming noticeably shorter.  By the end of the week, the length of day here in Washington will be one hour less than it was at the end of June.  On average we are now losing just over two minutes of daylight per day, so enjoy the late sunsets of the next several weeks.

Even though skywatchers are now experiencing earlier sunsets, we still have to wait until around 10:00 pm local time to enjoy astronomically dark skies.  However, in a kind of preview of the “Harvest Moon” phenomenon, the Moon rises less than half an hour later on successive nights, cutting into our time to enjoy the full splendor of the summer sky.  Fortunately, there are a number of bright stars to view as the Moon brightens the late night sky.  Looking toward the southern horizon at 10:00 pm, you will see the distinctive red-tinted star Antares.  If you are at a location with ha flat horizon, look for the other stars that trace out the figure of Scorpius.  To the west of Antares you will find three blue stars in a more or less vertical line.  These stars mark the scorpion’s “head”.  Curving southward from Antares is the rest of the scorpion’s body, with a large fish hook shaped asterism that curls up to a close pair of stars that mark the creature’s “stinger”.  Scorpius is one of the few constellations that resembles its namesake, and its origins date back well over 5,000 years.  One of the oldest depictions of it is carved onto a mace head from pre-dynastic Egypt, dated to c. 3,200 BCE.

As with many of the constellations, other cultures saw star patterns that were inspired by their ancient folklore.  The tail of Scorpius is one such example.  From vantage points in the South Pacific, Scorpius passes high overhead in the sky at this time of the year.  The Polynesian ancestors who sailed far and wide to populate the islands of the vast ocean saw the scorpion’s tail as a giant magic fish hook wielded by the demi-god, Maui.  The hook was used by Maui to drag the scattered Pacific islands up from the depths of the ocean.  Maui figures in many other stories among Polynesians.  Among his exploits was capturing the Sun in a noose to slow its progress across the sky, making birds visible to humans, and teaching humans how to make fire.  Variations of these myths exist throughout the Pacific islands, and Maui’s Fish Hook remains a mainstay in Polynesian sky lore.

Another legend from a completely different culture also plays out in our familiar summer sky.  The constellation of Cygnus, the Swan, whose bright star Deneb is one of the apexes of the Summer Triangle asterism, is another constellation that somewhat resembles its namesake.  To the Inuit people, though, it represents something much more tied to their culture.  They see a man in a kayak paddling along the Milky Way, which they know as the “Pebbly River”.

Venus is drawing ever closer to the Sun.  You can’t see her dazzle now unless you have a very well-aimed telescope.  She will pass between Earth and Sun on the 13th, and, a week later, will seem to vault into the pre-dawn sky. 

Mars now sets during the evening twilight hours, a bit over an hour after the Sun.  You will need binoculars and a flat western horizon to glimpse him, but for most of us he will be difficult to sight.  He will linger in twilight until early November, but will be essentially invisible during that time.  

Saturn rises at around 9:30 pm local time as August begins.  You should be able to easily spot him in the late evening hours above the southeast horizon.  He will reach opposition by the month’s end; at that time he will be visible all night long.

Giant Jupiter cracks the evening sky by the week’s end, rising just before midnight.  The best time to see him is still before sunrise, when he will be high in the east.


Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command | 1100 Balch Blvd. | Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529

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