Star Charts

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Star Charts

August 2020

After Sunset

In the summer, the Big Dipper is easy to find, high in the northwest after sunset. Connect the dots to imagine a big spoon or ladle in the sky.

The Big Dipper is not officially a constellation; it’s what astronomers sometimes call an asterism. It’s a familiar name for this pattern of stars, especially used by observers in the United States, but it’s not one of the 88 constellations recognized by astronomers worldwide. Ursa Major the Great Bear is the official constellation here, but you’ll need dark skies to see its fainter stars.

Use the two stars at the end of the Dipper’s bowl to lead you to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Polaris is not a particularly bright star, but it does remain fixed in the sky throughout the night and throughout the year. When you face the North Star, you’re facing due north. Polaris is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. This group of stars is also officially known as Ursa Minor the Little Bear.

Follow the curved handle of the Big Dipper to trace an ‘arc’ to Arcturus, the orange colored star in Boötes the Herdsman. Then speed on to Spica, the single bright star in Virgo the Maiden. Neither of these constellations has any other bright stars. Even under dark skies away from city lights, it’s hard to imagine these mythological figures just by connecting the dots.

In the southwest is the bright planet Jupiter. If you have binoculars, you may be able to see the giant planet’s four largest moons. Watch Jupiter’s moons over several nights to watch them orbit around their parent planet. If you have trouble steadying your binoculars on Jupiter, try leaning them up against the side of a building or another steady surface.

A small telescope not only shows the moons of Jupiter, but also its cloud bands. Jupiter has stripes! Look for the Moon next to Jupiter on August 28th.

Saturn is just to the left of Jupiter. At best, binoculars will show Saturn as appearing slightly oval in shape. A small telescope reveals the reason: those beautiful rings.

Both Jupiter and Saturn are just to the left of the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, which looks a lot more like a teapot to modern eyes.

Look high up for the three stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Each of these stars is part of its own constellation. The constellations Cygnus the Swan, Aquila the Eagle, and Lyra the Harp are more easily seen under dark skies.

As Earth and the other planets orbit around the Sun, the planets we see appear to move across the constellations over time. Some planets, like Mercury, Venus and Mars, move relatively quickly. Meanwhile, Jupiter and Saturn, being further from the Sun, move far more slowly. These two planets will now be in our early evening sky through the rest of the year, and we have a great opportunity to track their motions. They will appear to grow closer to each other over the next several months, and by mid-December, they will appear extemely close together, from our vantage here on Earth. Their closest approach will be on December 21, and you’ll be able to go out in the early evening to catch this incredible sight.

A Look Ahead

Throughout the year, the constellations rise and set just a little bit earlier every day. You won’t see much difference from night to night, but you will over the course of weeks or months. What we see in today’s pre-dawn sky is a preview of the early evening sky in later months. Go out before dawn this month for a look ahead at the autumn night sky.

In the hours before dawn, Scorpius, Jupiter, and Saturn have already set, and the Summer Triangle is beginning to set. Meanwhile, autumn constellations such as Pegasus the Flying Horse and Andromeda the Princess are high overhead. Mars, which rose before midnight, is now high in the south, in Pisces the Fish.

Trying to find Polaris? You’ll have a challenge on your hands if you look first for the Big Dipper — it and the rest of Ursa Major are now hiding near or below the northern horizon. Instead, locate W-shaped Cassiopeia the Queen, high in the sky. The central peak of the W forms an arrow that points you in the direction of Polaris.

Desktop planetarium software like the free, open-source Stellarium can show you more precisely where night sky objects will be on any date and time, and help you plan your observing.

From Dark Skies

Bright outdoor lighting can make it hard to see all but the brightest stars. On a clear night, find a dark spot far away from city lights, give your eyes time to adjust to the dark, and look for even more celestial sights.

Summer evenings are great for spotting the Milky Way coursing from Sagittarius through the Summer Triangle and on towards Cassiopeia in the northeast. This hazy band of light is the bulk of our disc-shaped galaxy, as we see it from within.

As you look towards Sagittarius and its neighbor Scorpius the Scorpion, you are looking in the direction of the dense center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Scan with binoculars or a telescope in this area to find many faint star clusters and nebulae throughout this part of the sky.

Look high overhead for the constellation Hercules and the globular cluster known as the Hercules Cluster, or M-13. Using binoculars, you may be able to spot a round-shaped glow. If that blurry glow doesn’t seem impressive, just remember that it’s a collection of around 300,000 stars, at a distance of over 22,000 light years, at an age of over 11 billion years old.

Perseid Meteor Shower

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks between the mornings of August 11-12. The Perseids typically put on a good show, but this year a bright, Moon may wash out all but the brightest shooting stars. Still, if it’s clear, head away from the city lights and take some time to meteor-watch.

Find a comfortable spot of open sky. Relax, face east, and watch a wide area of the sky. Bring some friends! Be patient. Under ideal conditions, there may only be one meteor per minute on average - and with the Moon this year, these won’t be ideal conditions. Meteor showers are usually best after midnight.

Some Perseid meteors can appear a week or two before or after the peak. Consider trying some late evenings or mornings later in the month, when the Moon rises later.

Meteors from the Perseid shower consist of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle. Every year, Earth passes through this trail of tiny particles. These particles burn up as they fall through our atmosphere, resulting in the distinctive swift streaks of light we call meteors.