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Hot August nights 2014

The Romans knew this time of year as the "Dog Days" because the constellation Canis Major and the Dog Star (Sirius) were first seen.
The Romans knew this time of year as the "Dog Days" because the constellation Canis Major and the Dog Star (Sirius) were first seen.
Credits: NASA/ESA/G Bacon.

August has been traditionally associated with the "dog days of summer," the time of year that seems to be the hottest. In the days before air conditioning, many wanted to beat the heat, longing around when they could, like an old hound dog. But the nights of the dog days 2014 are hot with space events.

August is the month that Canis Major became visible in the Northern Hemisphere during Roman times. "Canis" comes from a Latin word for "dog.". This mythological dog loyally follows Orion the Hunter. And this mythological dog gives its identity to August's "dog days of summer." The "star" of Canis Major is Sirius, a double star that is one of the closest stars to Earth. Our Sun is, of course, the closest. The Sun's light takes eight minutes to get here. The next closest is Proxima Centauri, whose light takes four years to get to our planet; tonight's star shine from Sirius left the star in August 2006.

This August is the second consecutive Super Moon month. On the 10th of August, the full moon will also be at perigee--the closest to Earth in its orbit. Observing the maria and mountains of the moon will be especially easy. Apollo 11 landed forty-five years ago last month in one of those lunar plains: Mare Tranquillitatis or Sea of Tranquility. The plains looked like Earth's sea to early astronomers.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest man-made object currently in orbit. It is often visible with the naked eye, an object as bright as Jupiter, even brighter when the space shuttle was attached. The shuttle no longer orbits. Other spacecraft now do the resupply and waste removal tasks: Soyuz manned spacecraft and remotely-piloted spacecraft (space drones?) flown by the European Space Agency (ESA) and SpaceX, a private company. The ESA is sending its fifth and final Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV-5) to resupply the International Space Station. The ATV is similar to the remotely-piloted craft that Space X has successfully sent several times. The ATV can be seen with the naked eye from most of the Northern Hemisphere, including Sacramento, California. Once the ATV docks with the ISS next week, the combined craft will be almost as bright as the planet Venus in the early evening.

The annual Perseid Meteor Shower peaks starting 10 August. It takes its name from a constellation named after Perseus, a hero in anciet Greek mythology, and is one of the brightest meteor showers in the sky. Swift-Tuttle, a comet discovered in 1862, leaves pieces of itself with every orbit of the Sun leaving space detritus as it approaches the Sun--and Earth. Some of that debris falls to Earth every August in the form of the meteor shower.

Spectacular though the dog day nights are, they have also been a time of intense space exploration.

As of 27 July of this year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Mars rover Opportunity has driven 25 kilometers. It is currently at the rim of Endeavour Crater, exploring an area 4.5 billion years old. The fetes of moon motoring are important because of the information they are accumulating; Opportunity is also amazing because it has been operating for a decade.

An ESA mission took the first pictures of a comet, the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August. The mission is called Rosetta Stone reminiscent of the stone discovered by French soldiers in 1799 that allowed archeologists to translate ancient Egyptian into Greek. Once the lander makes contact with the comet, it is hoped that secrets of the early solar system will be unlocked by the 21st century Rosetta Stone.

These are just some of the sights and activities that heat up the dog days of 2014.

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